HC Deb 11 July 1949 vol 467 cc35-9
Mr. Eden

(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Labour whether he has any statement to make on the present situation in the Port of London.

The Minister of Labour (Mr. Isaacs)

The following is the position as reported by the National Dock Labour Board and by the Transport and General Workers' Union at 10.45 this morning:

Tooley Street area: Practically no change. Butler's Wharf has resumed work, but as against this Cotton's Wharf has stopped. London Docks and Regent's Canal area: There was some resumption of work at the western end of the area, but men at the eastern end went to the Victoria Park meeting. Millwall, India, Royal and Surrey Docks areas: No change from Saturday. Tilbury: Work is proceeding normally.

At the Victoria Park meeting held this morning, which was attended by somewhere about 2,500 of the 10,000 men out, it was decided not to resume work on the Canadian ships. At the present moment there are 10,222 men on strike, 112 ships idle, and six ships undermanned, but the number at work in the docks this morning is approximately 15,000.

Mr. Eden

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to tell the House what steps the Government are taking to try to make their point of view known to the men at these meetings? If one is to judge from accounts in the evening papers, at the Victoria Park meeting no kind of statement was made either on behalf of the Government or on behalf of the leaders of the trade unions. The only message came from the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Solley), which was read at the meeting. In this very dangerous situation, is it not the responsibility of the Government and of the trade union leaders to put their case at these meetings so that, at any rate, the men, when they are taking decisions, know on what ground or in face of what argument they are taking those decisions?

Mr. Isaacs

The meetings are not convened by the Government or by the unions concerned. They are convened by the unofficial strikers, and even then it is difficult for those who wish to be loyal to get their case over, as was instanced at the stevedores' meeting. The Government very largely rely upon statements which are made in the House.

May I now repeat the situation? The men are apparently confused on the legal position, and I would repeat that they are acting in breach of an agreement and in breach of the Dock Labour Scheme, and everything flows from that. If they would only carry out the terms of the scheme, the matter could be quite easily settled.

Earl Winterton

I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman a question which affects the constitutional position of this House. May we be informed at the earliest possible opportunity who are the persons to whom the Attorney-General, speaking with all the authority of his office, on Saturday last, referred as being engaged in subversive activities in connection with this strike? He actually used the word "treason." Can the right hon. Gentleman assure us that if a Private Notice Question is put down tomorrow, he will be able to say who these people are and what action the Government are going to take?

Mr. Isaacs

I understand that the question of the action taken by the Government to-day will come up for debate in the House on Wednesday. Perhaps the noble Lord will be good enough to put his question then.

Mr. Sydney Silverman

In view of the fact that the Government are contemplating taking action under the Emergency Regulations, would it not be a good thing if the Government offered to send speakers to the meetings organised by the unofficial strikers so that they might hear at first hand the Government's view of the matter at issue, and not at second hand and not by means of such hysterical speeches as the Attorney-General made on Saturday?

Mr. W. J. Brown

Granted the difficulties of imposing Government speakers upon unofficial strikers, is it not possible for us to utilise the resources of the wireless to a very much greater extent than has been done so far to get the merits of this case over to the men?

Mr. Isaacs

We did that on the last occasion, and the question is whether repeated exhortation is going to be successful in view of the open defiance to the appeals made, or whether it is necessary to take some other action in the matter.

Mr. Eden

May I press the right hon. Gentleman a little further? I do not think anybody can read the accounts in the evening papers, supposing they are correct, of what has happened at these meetings without being impressed by the great number of men who quite obviously will not accept, or have not been seized of, what we think is the very strong Government argument. There is a very great responsibility on the Government to let the men know these things, whether it is done by wireless or in any other way.

Mr. Isaacs

At the moment the Government are doing all they can, but we will see whether there is anything further to be done. I ask the House to appreciate the awkward position which would arise if a Minister were asked to address a meeting of unofficial strikers.

Mr. Gammans

Is it true that the troops were withdrawn from work at the docks this morning, and if so, why?

Mr. Isaacs

No, Sir, it is not true that they were withdrawn. They were witheld so that there should be no reason for men who wished to go back to work to say that they would not go back while soldiers were there. They were witheld so that the men could go back, and they went in again as soon as it was clear that the men would not go back.

Mr. McGovern

Is there not in the mind of the Government growing evidence that trade union leaders in this country seem to have lost complete control and seem to be out of touch? They have delegated to a large extent their duties and obligations to the shop stewards, who are composed largely of Communists, and there has got to be a very serious revision of industrial control.

Mr. Piratin

In view of the Minister's statement that the resolution passed this morning at Victoria Park was to the effect that they would not handle these two Canadian boats, but that they did not say that they would not go back to work—which in fact they desire to do—will not the Minister, even at this hour, look into the matter once again in order to ensure that these men can go back to work, which is their desire?

Mr. S. Silverman

Does my right hon. Friend realise that if over 10,000 London dockers persist in what they are doing in the face of the exhortations, appeals and pressure, it is not because they are Communists or that they are being dragged at the heels of the Communists? It is because they do not understand what the issues are. Is there not, therefore, a great obligation upon the Government to make sure that, instead of making frantic charges of one sort or another, somebody goes down and responsibly explains what the issues are?

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson

The right hon. Gentleman suggested that the question of the Attorney-General's speech should be left over until Wednesday. Is he aware of the grave disquiet that the speech caused, and will he tell the House now whether the speech was made with the full authority of the Government and whether the right hon. Gentleman himself was consulted before the speech was made? Has it foundation or not?

Mr. Isaacs

I think that question ought to be addressed to the Prime Minister. May I say, with a sense of responsibility, that any speech that anybody can make which will bring this matter to an end in the proper way ought to be made.

Mr. Harrison

Will my right hon. Friend indicate what steps have been taken by the unions through official panels, which are particularly interested in this strike in the docks, such as the Transport and General Workers' Union and other unions, to bring the facts to the notice of the workers generally?

Mr. Isaacs

There are two unions concerned, and I can say with all sincerity that, so far as the Transport and General Workers' Union are concerned, the officials have done everything in their power to bring the matter home to their members.

Captain Hewitson

Would my right hon. Friend go on the air this evening and explain to the thousands of loyal dockers who cannot get a hearing at these meetings the true position, so that the mass of the dockers can hear the Government's point of view? I think that if that were done, there would be some response.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether the troops, whom he said were withheld this morning, are now back at work?

Mr. Isaacs

Yes, Sir. They were withheld for only half-an-hour or so.

Mr. Austin

In view of the fact that the origins of this grave situation lay in a dispute between two Canadian trade unions, is there any appropriate machinery or agency whereby my right hon. Friend can attempt to use his influence or that of our Government, through our machinery in Canada, to mediate between these two unions?

Mr. Isaacs

So far as Canada is concerned, this situation has resulted in the Canadian Seamen's Union being expelled from the Canadian Trades Union Congress.