HC Deb 21 July 1949 vol 467 cc1554-64
Mr. Eden

May I ask the Minister of Labour if he has any statement to make upon the situation in regard to the dock strike?

The Minister of Labour (Mr. Isaacs)

Yes, Sir. On the morning of 12th July, when the Emergency Committee was set up, there were 127 ships idle; 8 ships were undermanned and 16 ships were being worked by Service labour. This morning, only 25 ships are idle, 3 are undermanned and 117 are being worked by Service labour. This morning, there were 15,644 men recorded as being on strike.

Attempts this morning at Tilbury to spread the stoppage there have been unsuccessful, and at a meeting at West India Dock this morning a resolution was passed for a resumption of work, with only three dissentients. The docks group of the Transport and General Workers' Union also considered the situation in the London Docks, and endorsed the resolution of the biennial conference urging the men to resume work. At the meeting of the Lightermen's Union, the executive, after giving an account of the happenings of the last fortnight, instructed the men to resume work. It will, of course, be appreciated that the majority of the members of this union have continued at work.

I believe that there is a growing realisation amongst the men that there is no alternative before them but a full resumption of normal working. This is the advice of their accredited trade union leaders, and I would ask them to beware of attempts by others to prolong the strike.

According to a report in the Press, the combined executives of the Lightermen's Union and the Stevedores' Union this morning passed a resolution urging that the appropriate bodies in London meet the official representatives of the Canadian Seamen's Union at present in London, in order to discuss their proposals for the termination of the dispute in London as early as possible.

On Saturday last, when the executives of these two unions attended at my office, they gave the most emphatic assurances: (1) that they fully accepted the statement of the High Commissioner for Canada regarding the agreement reached between the Canadian shipowners and the Canadian seamen on 23rd June; and (2) that the Executives were not concerned with the details of that agreement but simply with the allegation that the seamen had been "double-crossed." All the information for which these executives asked was obtained. It was demonstrated that on that information there was definitely no support for, or evidence upon which to base, the allegation that the Canadian seamen's representatives were "double-crossed."

The House is aware of the difficulty which arose owing to the issue of a statement by the National Dock Labour Board without any agreement with the Emergency Committee as to its terms, and without any consultation with the Minister of Labour. Lord Ammon, on behalf of the National Dock Labour Board, has now agreed that he recognises that the National Dock Labour Board should consult the Emergency Committee and give effect to their decision on any question of policy, as distinct from ordinary matters of routine administration. In the event of any difference of opinion, the matter would be referred to the appropriate Minister for decision and no action would be taken until a decision had been given. The Minister of Labour will be kept informed of any proposed action. I would add that any question relating to the work of the Emergency Committee should be put to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport.

Mr. Eden

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he can elucidate the earlier part of his statement about the present condition of the strike? Can he tell us the number of men who are going back, etc.? His statement in this respect was extremely difficult to follow. Do we gather from him that the greater part of the men concerned have now undertaken to go back? I think not, but I should like to have a little elucidation on that point. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us which unions have agreed to advise their men to go back and which unions have not, and what meetings are being held?

Mr. Isaacs

I shall try, with the permission of the House, to give the fullest information possible. It was the men at the West India dock who, this morning, decided that they would return to work. They did so with only three dissentients.

Mr. Eden

How many men are concerned?

Mr. Isaacs

I am sorry that I cannot say definitely and must give the number from memory. I think there are round about 1,000 in that dock. The intention of the meeting was that there should be an immediate resumption of work, but again the mischief-makers got busy and the men decided—unofficially they came to this decision—that they would postpone further action until the meeting of the greater number tomorrow in Victoria Park. It is interesting to note that there were a few dozen or so who said: "The decision was to go back to work," and who in fact went back to work. There is therefore a little move in that direction.

In reference to Tilbury, I could not say the number there, but whatever the number may be, I am sure that the House will appreciate that a successful attempt has been made to prevent the strike extending there. That activity has been carried on by the Transport and General Workers' Union. As to the other unions, the situation is that the Lightermen's Union at their meeting this morning issued an advice or instruction to their members to return to work. I have since learned, after preparing my statement, that the meeting has not come to any definite decision. I am not sure whether the meeting has broken up without a decision or whether there is an adjournment, but a decision has not been taken yet. Only a comparatively small number of the lightermen are out. It is only right that I should remind the House that the vast majority of these men are continuing their work. As to the Stevedores' Union, where the matter first broke out, this union is maintaining contact with the Canadian Seamen's Union, asking for still further information, which we have already said does not exist.

Mr. Eden

The right hon. Gentleman has tried to give us a full account. Like other hon. Members I felt I wanted to know as much as I could about the situation. We have so often been given slightly cheerful and optimistic forecasts, which have not been developed. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman, in view of this situation, which obviously shows no fundamental improvement: Do the Government propose any action? Do the emergency Committee propose any action? What use are the Government making of the emergency powers? What did the right hon. Gentleman mean when he talked about people making mischief, since we have given him all the powers for which he asked?

Mr. Isaacs

My reference to mischief-makers was to the fact that, rightly or wrongly, the fellows were simply carrying out their more or less peaceful picketing and saying: "We are all out on the dispute. Let us all go back together and not a few at a time." With reference to the use of the Emergency Committee, I think the fact that we have got 117 ships at work and only 25 idle, is satisfactory. The Committee are building up other services, and it is hoped that they will get all the ships working. They are taking all the steps to get the job done.

Mr. Eden

Surely the right hon. Gentleman must realise, so far as sending troops to do this job is concerned, that there was no need for the emergency powers. The Government came to us last week and asked for emergency powers. May I ask them again what use they propose to make of those powers?

Mr. Isaacs

The emergency powers had to be taken so they would be available if necessary. I am not the person who can answer exactly about what is happening in regard to the Emergency Committee at the docks. That Committee have authority to decide what ships shall be unloaded and in which docks, and they have power to direct operations in the docks which they might not have had but for the regulations.

Mr. Eden

On the question of the Dock Labour Board, may I ask whether we are to understand that the Board and the Emergency Committee are going to meet from time to time to discuss what policy shall be pursued?

Mr. Isaacs

It is necessary for me to state that the Dock Labour Board and the Emergency Committee have had meetings, either between the top men or the top men and the second men on the other side practically every day since the Committee was formed. There has been discussion and continuous contact.

Mr. Eden

Will the right hon. Gentleman then explain what the Government Chief Whip in the House of Lords meant by his statement? [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] Can the Prime Minister, who is a colleague of Lord Amnion, say what the Government Chief Whip in the House of Lords meant when he said that he had never met the Emergency Committee? Is that correct or not?

The Prime Minister (Mr. Attlee)

I understand that was a Press statement. I do not understand that it was said by Lord Ammon.

Mr. Daines

Is this a correct interpretation of the situation in regard to the Stevedores' Union?—Mr. Richard Barrett, who is the Communist Secretary of the Stevedores' Union, is using the power that he derives from an unofficial strike which he officially condemns, to continue the dispute, in order to further the claims of the Communist-controlled Canadian Seamen's Union?

Mr. Isaacs

That is a straight question which requires a straight answer. If the paragraphs to which I have referred are re-examined, I think it will be found that Mr. Barrett is still continuing to delay a settlement by asking for further information.

Mr. Eden

I would press the right hon. Gentleman on this point. I urge the right hon. Gentleman again. He has said that he has no power to deal with a certain situation. If he has no power to do so, let him ask for further powers, which I am sure the House will grant, to stop one particular individual coming to this country to stir up all this trouble.

Mr. Isaacs

Mr. Barrett is not the individual who has come to this country. I shall answer about Mr. Barrett, but this Mr. Davies, who is here and is at present trying to stir up this trouble, is a Canadian citizen.

Mr. Churchill

Surely the British writ runs in the British Isles, and citizens from other parts of the Empire have to conform to the laws of the mother country, just as our people conform to their laws when they are abroad? Could the right hon. Gentleman explain what he meant yesterday when he said that if he had the power to deal with a few individuals he could bring the strike to an end at once? Why not tell us what it is he wants, because Parliament will not deny the necessary powers when a good case has been made.

Mr. Isaacs

There are two parts to the right hon. Gentleman's question. As to the first part, these men are not breaking the law. A careful watch is being kept on them. As to the second part, I submit that I gave an explanation of the difficulty in that matter in my answers yesterday.

Mr. Mellish

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the vast bulk of the men want to go back to work but that they are scared that a small minority will accuse them of being blacklegs? Is it not terribly important for a message to be given to these men to go to Victoria Park tomorrow and vote emphatically that they will go back to work? The self-styled lock-out committee are endeavouring to find a face-saving formula. Will my right hon. Friend make any comment on the suggestion, which I believe the vast bulk of the men would accept, that, first, there shall be no victimisation, second, there shall be the withdrawal of all troops, and third, that there shall be a Government inquiry into the whole of the matters affecting the dispute?

Mr. Isaacs

One thing which is quite obvious is that as soon as the men go back to work the troops will come out at the double. They will not stop there. As to no victimisation, I do not think there is any intention to victimise the men by punishment in any way, because their consciences have been victimised and their pockets have also been victimised. As to an inquiry, we cannot promise any kind of inquiry into the immediate causes of this dispute, because none is necessary; all the facts have been disclosed.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

In his first answer to my right hon. Friend's supplementary question, the right hon. Gentleman referred to trouble "having been caused this morning by more or less peaceful picketing." Is it not a fact than when picketing ceases to be peaceful the right hon. Gentleman has ample powers to deal with it, and will he give an assurance that he will exercise those powers?

Mr. Isaacs

The police will, I am sure, take notice of any conduct which is contrary to the real principles of peaceful picketing.

Mr. Piratin

The Minister said earlier that Mr. Davies, the President of the Canadian Seamen's Union, was here to prolong the dispute. On what grounds does he make that statement, in view of the fact that Mr. Davies has declared that he is doing all in his power to end it?

Mr. Isaacs

I have to judge between the words of Mr. Davies and his actions.

Mr. W. J. Brown

In view of the fact that if men behaved in Canada or the United States as Mr. Harry Davies and Mr. Popovitch and others have behaved in London, they would have been promptly deported from those countries, may I ask whether, if they have not already got the powers, the Government will come to this House and ask for the powers to deal with these men? Is it not intolerable that the docks should be held up every few months because of the activities of people of that kind?

Mr. Gallacher

On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. There is a Canadian seaman over here whose name is Mr. Pope. Am I to understand that it is permissible in this House to make reference to what: is obviously a foreign name when referring to this man? If that is the case, will it be permissible to refer to other people who had foreign names and have changed them to English names?

Mr. Speaker

I cannot say anything in advance.

Mr. Isaacs

In answer to the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. W. J. Brown), if he will be good enough to put a question on that specific point to the Home Secretary, within whose field it comes, I can assure him that he will get an answer.

Mr. Eden

I do not want to be unreasonable about this, but there are these emergency powers for which the Government have asked. Cannot the right hon. Gentleman or one of his colleagues answer this very simple question? If these people are regarded as menaces, have not the Government the power to send them away to another country? If they have not, will he say what powers the Government want, and we shall gladly grant them?

Mr. Isaacs

As I said, if the right hon. Gentleman will put that question down, he will get an answer.

Mr. Churchill

Does the right hon. Gentleman mean to suggest that after all these weeks in which he has been engaged in intimate study of this matter, he is not effectively informed on this simple point which has been put to him?

Hon. Members


Mr. Quintin Hogg

Is it not clear that to ask for serious powers of this kind and not to use them is making a mockery of Parliament?

Mr. Driberg

Is it not the case that it is not at all a simple matter to discuss the deportation of British subjects or Canadian citizens from this country, that it involves very delicate and complicated constitutional issues, that the Minister of Labour cannot be expected to deal with it impromptu, and that the Opposition in their desire to bully him are simply exaggerating their case?

Mr. Churchill

Is the Home Secretary himself, then, not able to answer the question which his colleague has referred to him?

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

The position is that any British subject, no matter what is his normal place of residence, has the right to come to this country without questions being asked on his arrival, and to remain here, and I have no power to deport him. I have no power to deport him under the Emergency Powers or any other Act that exists. That is fundamental to the position of this country as the Metropolis of the British Commonwealth and Empire, a consideration which does not arise in the other Dominions which have never claimed to be the mother country of the whole Commonwealth.

To depart from that principle would be so fundamental that I certainly would not think the House would agree to do it by regulation, which is the only power that exists under the Emergency Powers Act—to frame a regulation which would enable me either to prevent the landing of or to deport one of those people. It is a matter for question, and I am giving the closest attention to it with my colleagues, as to whether, with the development of the Commonwealth and Empire and the alterations of citizenship within that congeries of nations, powers ought to be taken in this country, but I am bound to point out to the House how fundamental it would be and the alteration it would make between this country and the other countries of the Commonwealth.

Mr. Ivor Thomas

Are ships still arriving at the London Docks, or are they being diverted to other ports?

Mr. Isaacs

They are coming in and being unloaded.

Mr. Gallacher

The Minister says that if we want information about the Emergency Committee, we have to put a Question to the Minister of Transport. Is it possible for us to be told where we can get information about the blond gentleman claiming to represent M.I.5 who has been creating mischief among the dockers?

Mr. J. Langford-Holt

If the Home Secretary has no power to deport these men—we accept that as being a statement of fact—can he say whether under the emergency powers he has any powers of restraint over these persons who are contravening, if not the law, at any rate the will and wishes of this House and the Government?

Mr. Ede

The very closest possible watch is kept on all the activities of these and other people associated with this dispute. I have carefully examined, and the Director of Public Prosecutions has carefully examined, all the statements that they have made, and I have been advised by the Director that up to the moment it has not been possible to undertake any prosecution.

Mr. Awbery

May I ask the Minister of Labour to continue to exercise his patience and his perseverance to bring about a satisfactory settlement of this dispute and not to be driven into precipitate action by words from the Opposition which may spread the dispute not only in London but to the other ports of the country?

Mr. Hogg

The right hon. Gentleman has said in terms that Mr. Barrett, whom I understand to be a subject of this country, is deliberately prolonging the dispute. Either the powers which we gave were necessary and valuable or they were not. What is wrong with the powers that we cannot impose our will on Mr. Barrett, who is breaking his trust with the trade union and his duty to this country and this House? [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] What is wrong with the powers?

Mr. Mellish

Can the Home Secretary please give the House any information as to when we are likely to receive the report which I know has been promised, and which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour has promised, in respect of the proof which the dock worker wants to see, and will deal with once he has the proof, of the elements which have caused the dispute? It is the proof that they are crying out for, and we ought to issue it. We have nothing to be ashamed of. Let us prove it to the country.

Mr. Gallacher

You have not got it.

Mr. Mellish

We have.

Mr. Sydney Silverman

May I ask my right hon. Friend to give most careful consideration to, and bear most closely in mind everything that has been said this afternoon from the Opposition benches when next he asks the House to renew the Control of Engagement Order?

Professor Savory

I want to ask whether there is not a precedent in 1939, when the Government took special powers for the deportation of British subjects who left, in railway stations, suitcases which blew up, causing the deaths of many other British subjects?

Mr. Keenan

Could the Minister of Labour by any means use his good offices, or any avenue at all, to get a full attendance of the men tomorrow at the meeting which could make that decision? While I am up, I should also like to ask my right hon. Friend if note is taken of the fact that the American Seamen's Union are establishing offices in this country, and I do not think there is any need for them.

Mr. Isaacs

Of course it is desirable that there should be a full attendance, because most of these troubles are caused not by the few agitators who attend, but by the great number of supporters who stay away. If the British dockers who, I think, are fed up with this, would attend in their proper numbers tomorrow morning, they could settle this strike tomorrow.

Commander Noble

Before we leave this subject, could the Minister of Labour tell us why he did not answer the question put by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg)?