HC Deb 01 May 1961 vol 639 cc910-2
Mr. Gresham Cooke (by Private Notice)

asked the Minister of Labour whether he will make a statement about the London dock strike.

The Minister of Labour (Mr. John Hare)

Yes, Sir. I have personally satisfied myself that the London Dock Labour Board was entirely within its rights in permitting the use of listed labour, and it appears to be the fact that the strikers themselves accept this. At the same time, given the resumption of normal work, there is nothing to prevent the men from raising through their union any objection with the Board, including their wish for a further investigation of their complaint about Lower Oliver's wharf.

I am informed that this is the advice the men have been given by their union. I understand that the immediate reason for the stoppage, that is, the use of listed men at Lower Oliver's wharf, has disappeared for the time being, as no unloading work is taking place there at present; in fact, the work involved is only two days a month, or, occasionally, two days every three weeks.

In the interest of the country, the men, and the future of the Port of London, I would, therefore, urge the strikers to return to work at once and take up the matter through constitutional channels.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that this unofficial strike of 13,000 men is, of course, contrary to an arrangement made with the Dock Labour Board, on which the trade union representatives were consulted and to which they agreed, and that, as a result of the strike, an immense quantity of food and vegetables is slowly going to rot and our exports are being held up?

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that there is a strong feeling in the country that, to avoid a repetition of the experience we had with the tally clerks' strike, which lasted 27 days, the Government should not allow things to drift and will before long have to step in and do something about it?

Mr. Hare

I think that the whole House will agree that strikes which are unconstitutional are highly regrettable not only from the point of view of the employers and the men themselves, but for the country as a whole. I think that that view is shared by most hon. Members on both sides of the House.

The situation is that within the docks there are about 30,000 tons of food in all, but at the moment the only commodities for which immediate concern is felt are onions, oranges and lemons. Of course, if the situation continues to develop adversely, the food situation will be more serious.

Mr. Lindsay

With the appalling waste of these recurrent unofficial stoppages not only in the docks, but also in the motor industry, are not we reaching the position when, however reluctantly, we should consider whether the State should underwrite agreements between employers and labour so that when employers break agreements the companies will be fined, and when labour breaks agreements the workers will not be able to draw P.A.Y.E. refunds, strike pay, unemployment benefit, or National Assistance?

Mr. Hare

I think that we should be very careful what we say. Dealing with the situation as we find it today, I think that both sides of the House must surely have this in common, that we are anxious that these men should be given a chance of responding to the call of their union.

Mr. Mellish

The right hon. Gentleman will understand that almost everything that he has said is warmly supported on this side of the House. He is looking, as I am sure we all are, for a formula for these men to go back to work. Nevertheless, reverting to the point he made about an investigation, may I put this to him—without, I hope, causing embarrassment to anyone who is trying to do a very difficult job at the moment?

I believe that this particular firm has quite a history. Would it not be a good thing if the Minister would be a little more forthright on the question of an inquiry, not only on the question of this particular strike, but, as it were, on earlier activities? If he were to emphasise that, and get such an inquiry going, is it not likely that the men would go back first thing in the morning?

Mr. Hare

I have already made it clear that if the men go back, they will have every right to take up their desire for an investigation with their union leaders.

Sir P. Agnew

In spite of the fact that some of these perishable foodstuffs may have been dumped here and to that extent are injuring our own horitcultural producers, will my right hon. Friend nevertheless take note that the public are very gravely inconvenienced by this strike, and will he consult with his colleagues in the Government with a view to taking a more robust attitude about this matter which, in the time of the Labour Government, culminated in their putting the Services in so that the public of London and the rest of the country were not put to this very great inconvenience?

Mr. Hare

I assure my hon. Friend that our desire at the moment must be to get the men back; but, of course, if the situation deteriorates the Government will watch it extremely carefully and will take the measures which the particular circumstances indicate are necessary.

Mr. G. Brown

May I express to the Minister our hope that he will stand up robustly to those on his side of the House who are giving him advice which would turn out to be quite disastrous in this situation? Those of us who know Mr. O'Leary know that he is standing up very courageously in a very difficult situation. Will the Minister continue to support the claims of those who are trying to work through the proper machinery, because, in the long run, that will pay us much better than what looks like more courageous action now?

Mr. Hare

Yes, the right hon. Gentleman will realise from what I said in my original Answer that that is my view. Against that, it is our duty, as a Government, to watch the situation very carefully. If it does deteriorate, it may be necessary for us to take action which, obviously, is not applicable to the present moment.