HC Deb 15 December 1950 vol 482 cc1547-53

2.57 p.m.

Mr. Malcolm MacPherson (Stirling and Falk irk Burghs)

We are a little behind time with our programme of debates on the Adjournment, and I think that it will be possible to make up a little of that time on this topic. I hope to be brief. I wish to raise a constituency matter, though I should like to point out that I find, probably in common with most hon. Members, that whenever one begins to examine what appears to be a constituency problem, one finds oneself examining what turns out to be a small segment of a national problem. It is in the wider national sense that I ask the Minister of Transport some questions about the docks in my constituency.

I suggest that the equipment of the docks of the nation, not only those of Grangemouth, might well have been given greater priority in recent years. The reconstruction of ports on the Continent has been given high priority in many cases, and there is now some contrast in efficiency between some of our own ports and certain ports in other countries. When one remembers how important a link in the chain, not only of transport but of industry in general, is the work of the docks, one is bound to regret the fact that we are not working at top efficiency.

We have had two Reports in the last couple of years—the working party's report on the turnround of shipping and the report issued this year on increased mechanisation in the docks—both of which have stressed the fact that there is a great deal of opportunity for further improvements in this matter. The first of these reports asks the Minister to prepare a programme of train requirements for the docks of the nation, and the second points out that there is a very wide field for mechanisation in the docks. I want to remind the Minister that, when one mechanises or in any way modernises work in the docks, one is doing the same sort of improvement to some of our great industries. We realise, for example, that the unloading of iron ore or steel scrap is a part of the chain of activities which ends in the coupling shops of Sheffield and the motor plants of Birmingham, and one begins to realise how necessary it is for bringing the working of our docks up to the highest standard of efficiency.

I confess to some feeling of disappointment that we have not been able to give greater priority to meeting this need in the years since the war. In Grangemouth itself we have docks of some importance. Grangemouth is the second port in Scotland in volume of traffic, being second only to Glasgow. In the Forth River estuary, where Grangemouth is situated, the other major port is Leith, but it is sharply differentiated from it in the nature of the work which it does. Grangemouth is very definitely a port dealing with bulk cargoes, ore, timber, scrap and cement, and cargoes of that sort, whereas Leith deals with food supplies, grain and that kind of thing.

The hinterland of Grangemouth is of great importance because within a short rail haul of Grangemouth docks there lies a great proportion, in fact, almost the whole, of the Scottish industrial region. Grangemouth also has a natural geographical advantage as a port for the importation of Scandinavian and Baltic timber and Swedish ore. It is equipped for the handling of bulk cargoes, but part of my submission is that it should be better equipped. It has an excellent rail service, every berth is actually supplied by rail, and its workers are by general agreement managing to do a good job without any particularly good equipment.

I want to ask the Minister what is his outlook about the future of Grangemouth as a port. I have been told from other sources that there is not enough traffic passing through Grangemouth to warrant a high capital expenditure. Apart from other cargoes, Grangemouth has one of the oil refineries which, I understand, form the subject next to be discussed this afternoon. I understand that the hon. Member who is to raise it will talk about Fawley. Apart altogether from oil cargoes, its annual handling of trade is of the order of two million tons, which is a considerable amount if we compare it, for instance, with the immense port of Glasgow of the size of which it represents about one-third. That fact indicates that Grangemouth is a fairly substantial port, doing a considerable volume of work.

Furthermore, some elements in the imports of Grangemouth can be counted upon as reasonably certain. So long as we are importing timber, Grangemouth is the port to which Scandinavian timber can come. So long as we are importing iron ore, so long as we have an iron and steel industry, then presumably Grangemouth is the natural port for Swedish ores and is very convenient also for North African ores. I should like to ask the Minister whether his outlook involves the acceptance of the idea that Grangemouth will in future be used to the full. The British Transport Commission recently had under review the river and ports of the Forth. I do not presume that, from that immediate and quick review, there will be any official conclusion available at this stage, but if my right hon. Friend has any information to give as a result of that or other investigations, I should be glad to hear it, and I think the House would be glad to hear it, too.

The present equipment of Grangemouth docks—and I am concerned only with equipment for heavy duty—is as follows. Its present heavy duty crane capacity is simply one 40-ton crane and two nine-tonners. That one 40-ton crane is used, for example, by the boat which has been taking regular cargoes of steel plates from Motherwell to Canada since last summer, and if that boat is at the bottom of the crane the others simply have to wait. The result is a slow turn-round of shipping. The two nine-ton cranes were originally seven-ton cranes which have been converted. They are quite commonly and casually described in the ports as cripples, for they are not able to stand up to long work.

When we turn to the lack of modern equipment, we begin to realise that we are placing a handicap upon many of our industries. If anyone stands, as I have stood, on the deck of a boat in these docks, watching a couple of men standing down in the hold with their feet sinking in a mass of horseshoes, bicycle chains and iron bars which make up scrap, picking up these bits and throwing them into the cradle of the crane, he will realise that this is the 20th-century method not only of unloading a ship but of conducting one very important process in our great national iron and steel industry, and he will find it a sobering thought. I suggest that there is a strong case for improving and modernising the equipment of such a port as this.

The proposal which has been made—and I think it is to a certain extent an agreed proposal—is the introduction of one heavy duty berth consisting of four 10-ton electric cranes with grapples which could be used for the type of bulk cargo with which Grangemouth has to deal. For the sake of brevity I shall not quote the paragraph just now, but I would draw the Minister's attention to the remarks of the working party on the turn-round of shipping, as shown on page 8 of their report, in which they point out that the loss in connection with iron ore traffic through inefficient handling in the docks has been serious and consistent—I think that is the phrase—so serious and so consistent that it calls for an inquiry into the whole matter.

In the last 24 months I have taken this matter up more or less continuously. First of all, I had communications with my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Scotland and with my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan), who used to assist the Minister of Transport and is now at the Admiralty. I have had communications with Lord Hurcomb, Chairman of the Transport Commission, and Sir Reginald Hill, of the Docks and Inland Waterways Executive. So far, it has mainly been a matter of refusals to agree the programme of improvements suggested. Recently, however, we have had the reports of these two committees—the working party and the committee on the mechanisation of ports—and at the beginning of this year we had the passing of the docks to the Docks and Inland Waterways Executive; and, perhaps more important than all of these, we have had the progress of the oil refinery reaching a stage where it is nearly completed and where the desirability of a new oil berth is becoming clear.

I understand that, as a result perhaps of these developments, there is some possibility of a new attitude, and that there is now some reasonable hope that the programme suggested, or something similar to it, will be approved. I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport will be able to say so, and if I have had some doubts about the speed or priority given to work on the docks so far, I certainly consider the Minister to be a reasonably minded man and I hope that he will agree that the case that has been put up is a reasonable one.

I want to make this one qualifying observation in conclusion, and to stress what I said at the beginning—that I put this case as part of a national case. I would not like the Minister to think that I am arguing that he ought to equip the Port of Grangemouth against better claims from elsewhere. What I am hoping is that he will find that as part of the economic effort, it is reasonable and desirable to go ahead at some fairly early date with modernising and re-equipping the Port of Grangemouth to some extent.

3.12 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)

I appreciate the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling and Falkirk Burghs (Mr. Malcolm MacPherson), both in the opening sentences of his case and in his concluding remarks, was broadminded enough to link the special problem of Grangemouth with the responsibilities that, naturally, I have towards the ports of this country as a whole.

I should like to emphasise at once that not only I, but people generally in this country, appreciate the importance of our ports, because they are the terminal points in our immense import and export trade without which this country would be unable to maintain its present standards. My hon. Friend's remarks have enabled me to deal first with the problem of the investment programme. He will appreciate that, just as within a Department like my own there is responsibility not only towards the ports but towards other aspects of transport, like the railways and the roads, and the investment programme has to be balanced within the Department between equally important competing claims, so the Government as a whole must balance the investment programme between many competing interests when they are determining the amount of capital expenditure that can be permitted both on overtaking arrears of maintenance accumulated in many services during the war and new reconstruction projects to deal with modern requirements.

The problem in the ports in this country during the last five years has been largely one of overtaking arrears of maintenance and the repair of war damage. As that problem is overcome, one can look forward to more and more of the proportion of capital available being devoted to new construction programmes. According to the figures I have before me, it appears that there has been a slight decline in the tonnage handled at Grangemouth as compared with 1938, for instance. It is not a substantial decline. In some respects the Port of Grangemouth has suffered less in relation to its pre-war imports and exports than other ports in this country.

As he has indicated, I was very quickly aware, in view of the vast capital expenditure that we had to face, of the need for information on the ports and the functions they would have to perform. In view of the increased capital cost of shipping today, it becomes vitally important that shipping should be turned round as quickly as possible at our ports. Then, because of the changing character of cargoes, it is equally essential that in any capital expenditure we should provide for the most efficient mechanisation at our ports for handling those cargoes. The reports of the two committees to which my hon. Friend referred were exceedingly valuable. Many of the problems relating to specific points mentioned in the reports have been referred back to the dock and harbour authorities.

On the whole, I have found a general desire to co-operate with my Ministry in securing improvements, including Grangemouth Port which, as my hon. Friend is aware, is one of the ports which has been passed to the British Transport Commission. One of the functions of the British Transport Commission is to carry out a review of the ports of this country, and, while such a review has been undertaken, it has not yet reached the stage of any particular action; further examination of the matter is required. My hon. Friend referred to the importance of Grangemouth as an oil refinery and port. Something like half of their tonnage consists of oil and, as everyone knows, that is a very important factor in the life of this country.

These matters are engaging the serious attention of the Docks and Inland Waterways Executive and the British Transport Commission, and I can assure my hon. Friend that as soon as these negotiations are complete, it is their sincere and determined desire fully to equip Grangemouth to enable that port to carry out the tasks which it has already done in the past and will, I feel sure, be called upon to perform in the future.