HC Deb 20 July 1949 vol 467 cc1376-85
Mr. Oliver Stanley

(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Labour whether he has any statement to make about the present position at the London Docks?

Mr. Isaacs

The number of men on strike this morning totals 15,509; 45 ships are idle; four ships are under-manned; 92 are being worked by Service labour. Additional Service labour will be allocated to the full extent required to maintain supplies vital to the life of the community. The Government are conscious of the deep debt of gratitude that the nation owes to the Service personnel who are working so magnificently at this emergency task, and I am sure the House will wish to be associated with our expression of thanks. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

Late last night the National Dock Labour Board issued a statement which contained an order that all dock workers now on strike should resume at 7.45 a.m. on Thursday, 21st July, 1949. It added that failure to return to work would jeopardise the every existence of the Scheme. This statement seemed to contain the implication that failure to return to work on Thursday morning might be followed by the end of the National Scheme. There is, of course, no foundation for any suggestion of this kind. Any question of modifying the provisions of the Scheme or of suspending or terminating it is one that can only be settled by the Government and is subject to the views of Parliament.

In the circumstances the Government felt it necessary, without delay, to issue an announcement that they were not contemplating any step to bring to an end the National Dock Labour Scheme. The Government are, of course, in accord with the Board in urging the men to return to work, and they fully support the Board in their efforts to reassure the men as to the way the Board operate the Scheme and intend to continue.

As regards the immediate position, I have this morning received from the Executive of the Lightermen's Union a statement in the following terms: The Executive Council of the Watermen, Lightermen, Tugmen and Bargemen's Union are holding a mass meeting of their members at Poplar Town Hall, Bow Road, E., on Thursday, 21st, at 11 a.m., to urge a resumption of work. They ask the members of the Rough Goods Section and also members employed on vital work who are actually at work at the time of the meeting, to carry on as normal. The Executive have asked me to secure the maximum publicity to this statement, particularly that part urging the men actually at work at the time of the meeting to carry on as normal, and I gladly do so.

Mr. Stanley

Has the attention of the right hon. Gentleman been called to a statement by the Chairman of the National Dock Labour Board which, I understand, appears in the evening Press, openly criticising not only the action the Government took last night but their whole handling of this strike? Is it not undesirable, and likely to do great damage, that there should be this open wrangle between the Government and a body appointed by the Government? In view of the seriousness of the situation I ask the Prime Minister whether, if on consideration we feel that this could only be improved by some opportunity for the House to discuss it, he would be willing, through the usual channels, to afford the facilities?

The Prime Minister

I would gladly consider that with right hon. Gentlemen opposite to see whether it would be useful at this juncture.

Sir John Anderson

Arising out of the statement of the Minister of Labour, I should like to ask him or the Prime Minister three questions. Does he or does he not agree that the Dock Labour Board, in the communiqué that they issued yesterday, were acting within their competencé unaffected by the Emergency Regulations? Secondly, is it not self-evident that when a body of men deliberately and obstinately persist in violating the clear conditions of a scheme under which they are employed, that scheme is inevitably placed in jeopardy? And in that connection, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman how the action of the Government in the early hours of this morning is to be reconciled with the reply that the Minister of Labour gave on 4th July to my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. R. A. Butler) in the course of which he said this: The men must realise that by their present conduct they may be imperilling the future of the Dock Labour Scheme."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th July, 1949; Vol. 466, c. 1797–8.] Thirdly, do right hon. Gentlemen realise that the action taken in the early hours of this morning, at which I personally was aghast—[HON. MEMBERS: "Speech."]—has been interpreted—

Mr. Gallacher

Suppose I tried that?

Sir J. Anderson

—and is bound to be interpreted, as a weakening on the part of the Government?

Mr. Isaacs

It would have been helpful had I had some notice of these questions, so that the actual facts could have been marshalled, The first point is whether the Dock Labour Board are acting within their competence, and it runs into the second one, as to whether the action of the men was putting the scheme in jeopardy. The real point at the moment is that nobody questions the right of the Dock Labour Board to administer the scheme but, when others are acting in co-operation with them in the steps that are being taken to secure a return to work—as is evidenced by the announcement I have made about a successful result in one direction—it makes things difficult if, at that critical moment, somebody, according to the way it was published, tells the men to return to work at such and such a time on Thursday morning, failing which the scheme is likely to be jeopardised. The two things must be taken in their relation one to the other.

The other point is this: it is one thing for a Minister to say that the scheme is in jeopardy, because the Minister is responsible to Parliament and Parliament must have a voice in this matter. It is another thing for a Board charged only with carrying out the scheme to make that statement in that connection at that moment. As to whether these steps should have been taken at this time, I again draw attention to the fact that we were in these negotiations and that, as Minister of Labour handling this matter, I was not aware of the statement being made.

The statement was an excellent one, carrying good advice, except for the point that gave the men today a first-class talking point, namely, that now their scheme is threatened. Time—these next few hours—will show whether the threat in that statement has had a more valuable effect than the fact that the Government are not taking that step at this moment. For right or wrong, for good or ill, having the responsibility of handling this matter, knowing the kind of men we have to deal with, I thought the best line to follow was the line of as much conciliation as possible to get the men back; for, with 15,000 men out, although we are unloading the ships, the nation is suffering, and I would rather see the men go back to work somewhat willingly, than dragoon them back to work and find ourselves with a lot more trouble.

Mr. Daines

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the dock workers of London will appreciate the Government's action in regard to their statement on the Dock Labour Board, and that this is further evidence of the Government's under- standing of the real interest of the dock workers despite every provocation?

Mr. W. J. Brown

May I ask the Minister whether he has seen in the Press today the statement that Mr. Harry Davis, the President of the Canadian Seamen's Union, is flying to this country today with the object of addressing the strikers tomorrow; whether the Government propose to take any steps about this; whether they propose to do anything about Mr. Popovitch; and, finally, what use they are proposing to make of the emergency powers that we gave them a week ago?

Mr. Isaacs

We are, of course, aware of Mr. Davis's return to this country. We are aware also that he is coming back with a mandate from the W.F.T.U. at Marseilles, and that an attempt is being made to create this kind of strike in other countries. But the Government have only certain restricted powers with regard to the conduct of British subjects from other lands who are in this country. Whatever powers we have will be exercised, but we do not have the powers which the Dominions possess against British nationals in their countries.

Mr. Stanley

It is now a week since this House discussed and passed the Emergency Regulations. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what use has been made of them and whether any action has been taken during the week which could not have been taken under the powers which existed before the Emergency Regulations were asked for?

Mr. Isaacs

By taking the Emergency Powers we have set up the Emergency Committee. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that even if no concrete action is apparent from their action, the Committee have had to settle down, make contact, become acquainted with the situation and obtain understanding. [Laughter.] Hon. Gentlemen opposite may laugh—I quite understand that there is many an hon. Gentleman opposite who could go to the docks tomorrow and run them without any trouble whatever. The gentlemen on the Committee are busily engaged. As soon as they are ready to make statements, they will make them, but I have no authoritative control over them. I know that they are visiting the port areas, they are contacting the people and are making their arrangements; and, should it be necessary, I am sure that they will announce what steps they propose to take.

Mr. Stanley

Are we really to understand that this Emergency Committee—note the title "Emergency Committee"—comprising, presumably, people who were selected because they could manage this thing, are still, a week later, settling down, getting to know their way about the docks and making contacts? Are they not yet doing anything?

Mr. Isaacs

Ninety ships are being unloaded. Steps have had to be taken to see that the troops are cared for, that they go into the docks, that the right ships are chosen for unloading, and things of that kind. [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."] What is the good of my trying to give an answer if hon. Members opposite say, "Nonsense"? We hear a lot of nonsense in this House, especially in the place where the noise is coming from now. As far as the Emergency Committee are concerned, they are doing their task. If they do wrong, they will have to answer to somebody. [HON. MLMBERS: "To whom?"] To this House, I expect.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

With a view to getting a speedy settlement of this regrettable dispute, will the Minister agree that if the men make an immediate resumption of work, he will carry out the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherhithe (Mr. Mellish) and appoint an independent fact-finding commission to go into this whole question?

Mr. Isaacs

I cannot make any conditions for the men to return to work. They are expected to return, and it is their duty to return. On the other hand, we are collecting a very interesting little dossier of the steps leading up to the dispute and what has been done since, and at the appropriate time it will be released.

Mr. Quintin Hogg

Whatever may be the position as regards the statement by the Dock Labour Board, does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that these divided voices in high places must necessarily jeopardise the chances of a settlement; and with whom did he consult before authorising the issue of the Government's statement? Will he give us some indication of what steps he is taking to prevent the continuance of this wrangle between two authorities in the matter?

Mr. Isaacs

There was consultation between the appropriate Ministers and steps are being taken, and have been taken, to see that there is no divided voice on this important matter.

Mr. Gallacher

In view of this very obvious and very serious mistake of the Dock Labour Board, would not the Minister agree that it is highly probable that similar mistakes were made by the Dock Labour Board in bringing about this lock-out; and may I also ask him, in view of the reference to the name of one of the strike leaders, whether it is not a fact that other people in this country have replaced their foreign names by English names?

Mr. Isaacs

I cannot understand what the second part of that question has to do with me. As far as the question of the lock-out, or strike, is concerned, if the people who have stirred up the dockers, and who have been encouraged by certain Members of this House, were to be shifted out of the way now—if we only had the power—we would stop the strike tomorrow.

Hon. Members


Mr. Stanley

The right hon. Gentleman has just said, "if we only had the power." If the Government want more powers, why do they not come to the House, explain what those powers are, and ask the House to grant them? We thought that last Wednesday we were giving to the Government all the powers they needed. If they need, as it now appears, more powers, let them come to the House and ask for them.

Mr. Peter Thorneycroft

Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg), is the Minister aware that according to Lord Ammon, who is Chairman of the Dock Labour Board, the Emergency Committee have not consulted him or that Board once since this affair started, and must not the Government accept a very grave measure of responsibility?

Mr. Isaccs

I should have thought that the hon. Member, with his knowledge of the law, would have at least ascertained what evidence there was to support that statement, because there is none.

Mr. Awbery

Is the Minister aware that, even though some 15,000 men at the London Docks are not working, there are 110,000 dockers in the rest of the country who are working, and that whatever action he takes in regard to London must not prejudice in any way the position of the dockers of the rest of the country as far as the Dock Labour Scheme is concerned?

Mr. Henry Strauss

The statement issued last night mentioned the Emergency Committee. Am I right in understanding that, should the Emergency Committee wish to make a public statement, they could do so, or do they have to make a statement through Downing Street; and if the answer is that they can make the statement themselves, will they be liable to the same treatment as the Dock Labour Board have received from the Government?

Mr. Isaacs

The Emergency Committee have the authority to make any statement they think fit. I do not propose to enter into the mischievous part of the hon. Gentleman's question.

Mr. Stokes

On a point of Order. May I call your attention, Mr. Speaker, to the fact that there is no Motion before the House; and is not this getting to the stage of an acrimonious Debate?

Mr. Speaker

These are questions which are being asked. I am trying to avoid speeches.

Mr. Jennings

In view of the statement issued by the Government yesterday, will the Minister tell the House and the country how he expects the Dock Labour Board to carry out their duties from now onwards after their dignity and responsibility have been so much lessened by that statement?

Mr. Isaacs

I should like to remind the House that there is a Joint Industrial Council for the industry to which matters of disagreement can properly be taken.

Mr. Pickthorn

Can the right hon. Gentleman explain what he meant by saying that the Emergency Committee are responsible to this House?

Mr. Isaacs

To the extent that questions might be asked in this House of the Minister responsible as to the conduct of the Emergency Committee. Surely, this Committee must be answerable to questions in this House about their conduct.

Mr. Keeling

Does the right hon. Gentleman adhere to the statement that he has no authority over the Emergency Committee; and, if he has no authority over them, can he say who has?

Mr. Isaacs

I do not think I made that statement. I will check it up in HANSARD. In any case, the point is that the Emergency Committee are appointed and acting under the authority of the Ministry of Transport.

Colonel Ropner

I understood the Minister to say that if he had certain powers he could stop the strike tomorrow. Would he explain to the House what powers he requires in order to do so?

Mr. Stanley

In view of the statement that the Minister of Transport is responsible for the action of the Emergency Committee, and works through them, may I ask if the Minister of Transport was one of the Ministers consulted before the issue of the statement from Downing Street last night?

Mr. Isaacs

The answer I give is that I am not prepared to say exactly who was and who was not there.

Mr. Harrison

Will my right hon. Friend resist the obvious attempts made by hon. Members opposite to stampede him into taking action—[Interruption.] Will my right hon. Friend resist the efforts of hon. Members opposite to stampede him into taking unwise action which will make the position considerably worse than it is at present?

Mr. Hogg

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain what he meant when he said to the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) that if he had certain powers to shift those who were stirring up these men, he could finish the strike? As I understand it, a person who aids and abets a breach of a regulation is already committing an offence under it and if what the right hon. Gentleman says is true, or has any basis of truth, why does he not institute proceedings?

Mr. Isaacs

What I had in mind when I answered the hon. Member for West Fife was that if a British seaman was carrying on conduct of this sort in one of the British Dominions, they have power to deport him, but if a Canadian seaman is carrying that on over here we have no power to—[HON. MEMBERS: "Take it."] Wait a moment. We cannot take it by putting a penny in the slot, but have to draft a Bill, come to Parliament and face all the criticism of hon. Members opposite about interfering with the liberty of the subject. The point I was making is that this has all been done by mischief-makers and if we had had the powers, we might have stopped it long ago.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

We must get on to the next business. The Deputy-Chairman of Ways and Means.