HC Deb 01 December 1954 vol 535 cc303-12

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith.]

10.39 p.m.

Mr. Paul Williams (Sunderland, South)

I feel extremely fortunate to have the chance of introducing this subject tonight, more especially as I think that I can bring with me, for a change, the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey)—although at a later stage there may be a Scottish intervention of a controversial nature.

There are, I believe, certain people in Sunderland who, from time to time, think that it is the River Wear which divides the hon. Member for Sunderland, North from myself, and I am very pleased to think that it is the river—the most important artery of the most important port in the world—which may bring us together. Unfortunately, it brings us together in criticism which, I am afraid, must be levelled at the Government in this issue, because it seems to me that at the very least there has been lack of consultation between the War Office, on the one hand, and the port of Sunderland authority and a shipping company, on the other hand.

With, I hope, the acceptance of the hon. Member for Sunderland, North, I want to urge that this matter should be reconsidered, in spite of the copious notes which the Minister has with him this evening. I want to urge that there should not be a categorical, "No" but that the issue should remain open, especially in view of what both hon. Members for Sunderland will say in this debate.

I understand that a limited amount of tonnage which previously was shipped through the port of Sunderland has been transferred to the port of Leith. The benefit to the port of Leith will undoubtedly be unfolded in due course although, fortunately, because of the character of the debate, not at great length. The advantages of the port of Sunderland need not be stressed because they are known to all. Leith must, naturally, speak for itself.

The argument for the transfer of this traffic, I understand, is solely economic. Paisley, the central depot, is nearer to Leith than to Sunderland, and I can understand the War Office saying that, this being a shorter distance, in the long run the freight rates will be less if the traffic goes via Leith than if it goes via Sunderland. I am not convinced that this means that inevitably the haul from Paisley, at one end, to Hamburg, at the other end, will be cheaper if the traffic goes through Leith. Possibly it may be shown in the debate that this is so.

The major point which I wish to make is that at no time has there been consultation between the War Office and the port of Sunderland authority—the River Wear Commissioners. It may be that the handling charges at Sunderland cannot be sufficiently reduced to offset the reduced transport charges, but no one can say that that is so with any firm conviction because this consultation has been absent.

Let us look at the strike record and the certainty of being able to ship from the River Wear and the port of Sunderland. As far as I have been able to discover, the last strike of Sunderland dock workers occurred during the general stoppage of 1926. I need not go into the why's and wherefore's of that issue. In September, 1942, the crane drivers on the railway of the Wear Commissioners and the locomotive men withdrew their labour for one week, but there was no stoppage of work in the port, so it cannot be because of any inefficiency, any lack of certainty or lack of good service in the port, that this change is being made.

Let us look at the strategic value of the port of Sunderland. It is all very well to ask for the services of a port in time of war, expecting every facility to be available for the shipment of war stores in time of national emergency, but not if, in time of peace, there is to be a retraction of traffic which, although light and small, is of some importance in the working of a port of the size of the port of Sunderland.

I want the Minister also to deal with the question of the notice which was given of the withdrawal of this traffic. It was only by chance, as I understand, that on 17th September the general manager of the River Wear Commissioners heard by telephone from the shipping company concerned that this traffic might be ending at the end of that very month, in less than 14 days. Is this a reasonable way in which to treat a shipping area or the shipping company involved?

Surely when the decision had to be taken there should have been consultations to find the least damaging way of ending this traffic for the port of Sunderland and the Wear Commissioners. There has been failure by the War Office to consult the shipping company or the Wear Commissioners. At no time was there consultation. It may well have been that if there had been such consultation the reduced charges which were alleged to be available by using the port of Leith could have been met by the port of Sunderland. But there was none. It may well be proved this evening that there is economy by the transfer of this traffic.

For my part, I could never accept that this has been an open, full or satisfactory way, or even a commercial way of dealing with this issue. I do not believe it is in the interests of the economy and the best "commercial practice" that this move has been made. If it is in the best interests of "commercial practice" there is certainly nothing of which any of us can be proud that the traffic should suddenly and without warning come to an end, and that the port of Sunderland which is called on in an emergency to give great and reliable service should have this admittedly small traffic withheld.

I would ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary whether that is a commercially efficient way of conducting the business of the War Office. I have already asked him whether, at this late stage, this matter could be reconsidered, and I would ask for an assurance that even if this issue is not left open such practices will not continue and that no other port will have to suffer the withdrawal of traffic. That is the least I and the hon. Member for Sunderland, North can get out of this. I would also urge my hon. Friend that if he is not in a position to give more than a guarded negative I would rather he gave it not at all and left the matter open.

10.48 p.m.

Mr. James H. Hoy (Leith)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. P. Williams) for giving me an opportunity of saying a few words on this matter. I do not know why he started as he did, for I am sure that Leith never did Sunderland any harm. We have much sympathy with ports that lose trade. We in Leith have been in the same position with some sections of trade. If I only give him one example he will know how we understand it. We exported 2 million tons of coal from Leith, but now the quantity is a mere fraction of that figure. We know what it is when traffic goes. The hon. Gentleman must not think that Sunderland rendered special service in the war. Every port in the country rendered war service, and none greater than that at Leith.

I understand that the traffic under discussion does not mean a great deal, but I should like to tell the Under-Secretary that we shall be grateful to handle it at Leith on behalf of the War Department. What are the reasons which caused the War Department to do this? I understand that from the point of view of economy and efficiency traffic could be better handled at Leith, and if the Secretary of State wants a recommendation for taking it there he has only to examine the report of the Docks Executive, which visited all the ports in the country. In that report they speak of the efficiency with which traffic was being handled at Leith.

If the hon. Gentleman raises the argument about the number of stoppages, our record surpasses his. We have had no trouble since the war. Despite all the disputes that have occurred, they have not affected the port of Leith. If the change is for reasons of economy and efficiency, the War Office is quite right in doing what it has done.

After all, the War Office must be allowed to choose the place from which to send its goods. If a private firm finds that other docks can handle its trade more cheaply and efficiently, it acts accordingly. In such a case, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South would have no redress.

Mr. P. Williams

My point was that it is not yet proved that it is more efficient to go through Leith.

Mr. Hoy

The Minister will provide the answer to that. The hon. Member is asking the Government to do something which he would not expect from a private trader. On the whole, the Minister might be better able to judge, and I shall await his reply with interest.

I am grateful that the War Office has chosen Leith for this purpose. I have always wanted it to do so. In fact, the only other request I have made to the War Office was that it might give up a part of Leith that it has—Leith Fort—and let us have it for housing purposes; but I shall not pursue that tonight. If the Minister is interested in efficiency and economy, as I am sure he is, we will certainly do our best, if the traffic comes to Leith, to give him our support.

10.52 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

I do not quarrel with my hon. Friend the Member for Leith (Mr. Hoy) save to say that the war effort of Sunderland far surpassed that of Leith. That is a factual matter which I should state for the purpose of accuracy. I join with the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. P. Williams), who is serving Sunderland well by raising this matter. The general feeling in Sunderland, regardless of party politics, is that we have had a very raw deal on this question of traffic, and nothing that my hon. Friend the Member for Leith has said disturbs that impression.

I feel, as the hon. Member for Sunderland, South said, that we ought to have been consulted. How was it that there was no consultation with either the operators or the port authority? It was learnt only in the middle of September that this trade was being taken away at the end of the month. We feel sore about the matter and we feel that we have been shabbily treated, because, as the hon. Member for Sunderland, South said, some regard ought to be paid to our record. We have given 14 years' service to the War Office, and we carried on this traffic throughout the war, in face of danger. It is a fact that three of our traffic foremen and our dockmaster were decorated for devotion to duty. Apart from the merits of the case, I should have thought that some regard should be paid to that past service and that, at any rate, we should have been fully consulted.

There is a second thing which the War Office cannot entirely disregard. It so happens that this is a very difficult time for the Sunderland docks. All that my hon. Friend has said in favour of Leith could have been said for the past few years, but why should this blow be struck now, when a very high level of unemployment prevails among the dock workers in Sunderland? The two matters which the Minister has to explain are the absence of consultation and negotiation, and the reason for taking this step now. Why was no regard paid to the fact that just at present the port of Sunderland faces very real difficulties?

I want briefly to mention the two reasons which have been given by the War Office for the action which has been taken. The shorter railway haul is self-evident and is, obviously, something that should be taken into account. It is our misfortune in this matter that we are further away than Leith from Paisley.

Mr. A. Woodburn (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)

It is usually the other way round.

Mr. Willey

As I have said, that is not a matter which has suddenly been discovered by the War Office; it has obtained for a long time.

As I understand it, the change will not operate for the benefit of the War Office immediately, because the traffic is governed by flat rates with the Railway Executive. But, again, if this was the factor which induced the War Office to change its mind, why did it not consult us? Even if the War Office had convinced us that this was necessary—which, of course, it did not do, we should have asked that it did not take this action now because of the dock workers who are "laid off."

I should like to say a word about handling charges. It is most unfair, as I stated in the letter which I sent to the Under-Secretary's predecessor when I raised this matter before the end of September, to say that the handling charges are less. The fact is that at present we are so anxious to retain all the trade we can in Sunderland that I am quite sure I should not be embarrassing anyone if I say that we should have been pleased to negotiate handling charges. We should have been pleased to do that in order to retain what trade we can for the port.

In brief, I am most anxious to support the plea made by the hon. Member for Sunderland, South and, in so doing, I say that this is something which is very much troubling Sunderland. We are very disturbed that we have been treated in this way and I hope that it is not too late, even now, for the Government to pay attention to our past services and our present difficulties.

10.57 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Fitzroy Maclean)

I should like, first, to say how grateful I am to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Williams) for having raised this question and for enabling me to try to clear it up, and also for having given me notice of the points which he wished to raise. Incidentally, I should also like to thank the hon. Member for Leith (Mr. Hoy) for the help he has given me in answering some of those points; and it would be ungracious if I did not thank the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) for helping to balance things up. I may say that I think that what the hon. Member for Leith said on the subject of free competition and private enterprise was very much to the point.

Before going any further, I should explain that the shipment of War Department freight traffic from the United Kingdom is arranged on our behalf by the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, who employ, for this purpose, Government freight agents to do the work. Of course, the Ministry of Trans- port is in a better position than the War Office to estimate the effect of changes in traffic routing upon ports, and if there was any likelihood of serious disruption being caused by such changes, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation would be ready to adjust his policy accordingly.

The traffic with which we are concerned tonight amounts to about 8,400 tons per year of rations from the War Department depot at Paisley, and which has hitherto been sent to Hamburg, as hon. Members know, through the port of Sunderland. This represents less than a quarter of 1 per cent. of the total traffic of Sunderland, and about 6 per cent. of the mixed cargo traffic which involves most of the stevedoring work.

In September last, we were advised by the Government freight agents that a fortnightly service from Leith to Hamburg would be available in the future, run by a different line from that which had hitherto shipped our stores from Sunderland. After discussing the matter with the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation we decided that the right course was to make use of the shipping from Leith, and the principal reason for this was that the distance from Paisley to Leith is 58 miles by rail, compared with 181 miles from Paisley to Sunderland: a third of the distance, and that is a very important consideration indeed.

The Government freight agents informed the shipping company of this decision in mid-September. They told it that the next shipment at the end of October would go to Leith by a different line, and not to Sunderland. Under this new arrangement there is, of course, a considerable saving on our expenditure on rail freight, for the reason that the flat rate which we pay on all rail freight moved for us by British Railways will be reduced as a result of this saving. It affects the whole rate throughout the country; it does not affect this one haul only, but indirectly it affects the total rate, which is revised from time to time.

The effect will be to reduce that total rate. That is an important point. In addition, there will also be a real saving in transport resources, and that, of course, from a national point of view, is most desirable. We have all to try to play our part in reducing defence expenditure, and this is one of the ways in which we are doing it.

My hon. Friend suggested—I think it was his chief point—that we should have discussed our intention in advance with the port authorities. I think it must be clear that it would be quite impossible for the War Office to discuss in advance all changes in our plans with local authorities. In accordance with normal commercial practice, the Government freight agents, who act on behalf of the Government in this case, deal only with the shipping companies and not the port authorities in booking freight. As far as the War Office is concerned it is imperative that we retain our freedom to adjust shipments and choose ports at short notice in order that we may be able to meet sudden changes in the requirements of the Armed Forces.

Mr. P. Williams

Whether consultation was with the shipping companies or the port authorities in Sunderland does not matter. The real point is that there was no consultation with anyone.

Mr. Maclean

Our point is that we have to keep our hands free to be able to meet sudden changes in requirements. The War Office is not able to commit itself to consultation, for the reason that if we were obliged to consult all the interested parties before making any such changes, inevitably there would be long delays before a change could be made, and there would be a corresponding lack of flexibility, which we, in our position, for defence reasons, are simply not able to contemplate, especially in a case like this, where the traffic in question is really only a very small proportion, a quarter of 1 per cent. of the total traffic of the port. The argument applies to a greater or a lesser extent throughout the country. It is very improbable that the changes we make in our traffic would affect the ports concerned to any very great extent.

Both my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South, and the hon. Member for Sunderland, North mentioned port dues and handling charges. The port dues at Leith are 7s. 3d. a ton, compared with 8s. 10½d. a ton at Sunderland. But that is not the point. The point is that even if Sunderland charged nothing at all for port dues and handling charges, which is hardly likely, it would still be cheaper for us to use Leith because of the saving on the British Railways flat rate charge which will be effected by this change. Even if we used commercial rail freight rates, the saving would still be larger than the total charges at Sunderland.

The strategic importance of the port of Sunderland is appreciated by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation, and, once again, if the port were in any danger of suffering seriously because of this present loss of traffic, he would, I am sure, take the necessary action to remedy matters.

We are the first to admit that we have had good service from Sunderland for a number of years, and I should like to take this opportunity of expressing the gratitude of the Army for it. I am sure that the service we shall receive from Leith will be in no way inferior. We have had an assurance of that from the hon. Member for Leith, and he has also mentioned the real needs of the port of Leith, which must also be taken into account.

In conclusion, I should like to emphasise once more that in matters of this kind arrangements are made on behalf of the Army by the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation. The War Office is only able to judge the direct military and financial implications of any decisions that are taken. Wider repercussions must remain the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation and my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Labour, and I am sure that they will take the necessary action to put things right should the need arise.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Eight Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.