HC Deb 23 December 1964 vol 704 cc1271-301

1.51 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd (Sutton Coldfield)

I wish to raise this afternoon the difficulties which are being experienced by our exporters and particularly in my case, as is natural, exporters from the great industrial areas of the West Midlands, as a result of present conditions in the docks. Before doing so, I should like to mention a danger which I apprehend and which I think all of us in the House would want to avoid.

There is so much concentration of attention upon our export problems at present and, naturally, upon the difficulties of our exporters and our desire that they should be more successful that there is a danger that we might talk ourselves down in the estimation of the world. There is a danger that we may injure the credit and reputation of our exporters in the world. I am sure that that is something which we all want to avoid.

There is also the danger of depressing the morale of firms engaged in the export effort. I thought that the Prime Minister was culpable in this respect last week when he referred to our manufacturers as being slothful. It is, therefore, useful to remind ourselves that last year we exported over £4,000 million worth of goods, an increase of 8 per cent. over the previous year, and that in the first nine months of the present year exports are up by 4 per cent. on what they were last year. In passing, I might add that we export per head more than twice as much as do the Japanese.

We are, therefore, taking for granted the colossal and successful export efforts of our nation. We want to do better, of course, and there is nobody who wants to do better more than the actual exporters themselves. I therefore feel that we want the message to go out from the House today that we appreciate the tremendous practical job that is being done by British exporters. The purpose of the debate, as I see it, is to help remove some of the difficulties which at present stop our exporters from developing their full forward thrust.

Having said that, I think it would be of most service to the House if I became very concrete and definite in giving a certain number of examples of the difficulties which Midlands exporters have experienced in recent weeks. The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Transport, whom I am glad to see present, will appreciate that I shall not mention the names of the manufacturers, but if he wishes I can always furnish them to him.

A leading manufacturer of metal tubing instances a case of two lorry loads for London Docks being delayed three days and the carrier asking for demurrage. This company had 40 tons for the Royal Albert Docks but found it impossible to obtain private carriers to handle it because of the delay. A shipment for Israel was missed entirely. In another case, scheduled loading dates were put back without proper notification and as a result consignments in good time for the original dates were not accepted and additional journeys had to be made.

One of the greatest manufacturers in the country reports that his export business has been seriously disrupted by dock delays. He complains of split shipments and has doubts about being able to meet letters of credit in time. The company instances 30 tons consigned to Hong Kong of which 10 tons were despatched on the designated vessel and the remaining 20 tons on two other vessels. Where previously ten days' delay was anticipated, 30 days now appear to be regarded as normal. It is difficult to know whether shipping can be effected within the time stipulated in letters of credit. Approximately 60 per cent. of the company's exports are forwarded to the ports by rail and the company finds that London Docks are by far the worst.

I take the instance of a leading merchant shipping to West Africa. Split shipments are creating tremendous problems of documentation. These have become so great that documents are sometimes not reaching the destination before the goods, and this means further delay at Customs at the destination.

A well-known company reports that at the beginning of last week 135 cases of its goods were returned because the lorry driver was told that he might have to wait until Saturday. Some goods have to be sent two and three times to the port before they can be accepted. Shipments have been split. In other cases where import licences were involved the company has found it necessary to withhold shipments until new letters of credit have been obtained. The company particularly mentions Middle East destinations and destinations with a large Chinese population where annual festivals are due to take place early in the New Year and where it is important for shipments to arrive in good time.

I have a large number of examples, but I shall mention only two others. A big haulage firm in Smethwick, which acts for several large Midlands customers, reports that a quantity of chocolate for loading on to the "Egyptian Princess" on 18th December was not accepted because the closing date for the boat was advanced by one day. A further fortnight will elapse before space can be booked on another steamer and the goods will be returned in the meantime for replacement owing to their perishable nature.

Three consignments from another manufacturer despatched on 10th September from the West Midlands for the "Port Invercargill" at the Royal Albert Docks could not be accepted on the following day. The vehicle was also turned back on 16th September and the goods were not actually shipped until 6th October on the "Port Chalmers". Three journeys were, therefore, made from the West Midlands in this instance.

I do not think that I need weary the House with further concrete examples, of which I have a great many, but I should like to quote from Mr. Laurence Styles, Chairman of the West Midlands Institute of Export, because I think that his comment sums up the position. I have been in touch with him, in addition to the manufacturers I have mentioned. He says: the long-term answer to the problem is greater mechanisation, and the improvement of dock facilities. But the short-term answer was for the Government to come to grips with the dockers and sort out their working conditions and pay … All we ask— on behalf of the West Midlands exporters— is that, if there is an advertised ship, we should be able to send cargo to her with the reasonable certainty that it will be shipped". The industrial correspondent of The Times reported on 10th December: The Export Council for Europe last night criticised the working of British ports in terms which, as blunt comment, have few recent parallels among statements from quasi-official bodies. Mr. Glen, the Chairman of the Council, commented: We believe this is now the greatest single threat to our export position … We are not convinced that its true gravity is realised. It appealed to the Government, calling for urgent action—which is what we are doing this afternoon.

It will probably be agreed on all sides of the House that this occasion is not one on which to consider the long-term project. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples), with characteristic energy and vision, set up the Rochdale Committee, and then produced his Harbours Bill, which was received most warmly on all sides of the House, including by the Labour Party, and he then started energetic action to get on with the work. I hope that the present Government are continuing with it.

However, as Mr. Styles rightly says, we are faced today, and so are our exporters, with the short-term problems, and, without going into a great deal of detail, I would say from my studies of the matter that the short-term problems are strictly practical ones, such as, for example, smoothing the flow of vehicles to the port, clearing the transit sheds and working up as fast as possible from the ten-hour working day, which I am informed is the normal working day in the Port of London, to the 24-hour day, which is the working day in Rotterdam.

I want to make clear to the House that it is not my purpose to point an accusing finger at the dockers. Having as Minister of Fuel had such long experience in handling the labour problems of the mines, I feel instinctively that the dockers also have problems which derive from the long past which we ought to bear in mind sympathetically. This does not mean that the dockers have not got a vital contribution to make to the solution of our problem, and I think that the dockers themselves would agree with this point of view. They would surely agree if given the right leadership, and I suggest that in present circumstances that leadership must come from the Government. The Government have recognised this in principle, but I suggest that they have acted most inadequately. It is not enough to set up a committee and put in the chair an eminent and able official, whom I myself have known for many years and whose ability I appreciate. Officials themselves are the first to recognise the limitations of such a mode of work.

Last week the Prime Minister was appealing to the instinct and the spirit of Dunkirk. Since at this period of the year I want to avoid any overweening observations, I merely say that if the Prime Minister aspires to wear the mantle of Sir Winston Churchill he must make himself worthy of it. The problems of the docks are exactly the kind of practical problem in respect of which I as a junior member of Sir Winston Churchill's Administration in the war was accustomed to feel the lash of his driving power in insisting that they must be solved. It is exactly the situation where "Action this day" was the motto on which Sir Winston Churchill insisted. If the Prime Minister is to talk about the Dunkirk spirit, it is not right that he should talk about it for other people without setting an example in his own Administration of the kind of determination and energy which was shown on that occasion.

The present Government are peculiarly well suited to invoke this kind of unconventional and decisive administration in such a matter. I well realise that the right hon. Gentleman opposite may be in a somewhat difficult situation. He may take the narrow position that he is the Minister of Transport and that many of these problems are handled by other Departments, but, of course, he is speaking on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, and the Government contain not only other Ministers such as the Minister of Labour, who have great responsibility, but also Mr. Frank Cousins. I should have thought that the Prime Minister, when invoking the Dunkirk spirit, would have got over the conventional distribution of responsibilities between Departments and in this very critical situation, as recognised even by quasi-official bodies, would have instituted some real driving directive within the Government in which I should have thought Mr. Frank Cousins would be well able and well qualified to play a leading part. It is upon that basis that I introduce this subject to the House.

2.7 p.m.

Dame Patricia Hornsby-Smith (Chislehurst)

I am glad of the opportunity to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd). I am more particularly concerned with the London Docks. There is one issue upon which hon. Members on all sides are united, and that is the absolute necessity to increase our exports and to export in full measure if we are to find the wherewithal to pay for the food and raw materials that we must have if our people are to be properly nourished and fed.

There are differing views about exports. Some people have described them as fun. Some think they are just sheer hell. We are at least united in the conviction that they are vital. It is a sad fact that, though we have some tens of thousands of manufacturing organisations in this country, three-quarters of our exports come from 200 great manufacturing and exporting companies. Those firms are the Brigade of Guards and the shock troops which are always in the front line of our export drive, and they are worthy of our consideration.

There is in my constituency a small, compact industrial area, and I was very proud when it was noted in the export campaign run by the former President of the Board of Trade, small though it is in comparison with the great industrial cities, because it had an outstanding export record. It is because of the complaints that I have received from many of the companies—I will give the right hon. Gentleman a few of the many examples which have come to me—that I urge upon him the great importance of ensuring that something is done to expedite the export of goods vital to our economy.

All over the world executives are going out winning orders in face of the fiercest ever competition. They plan and adapt their output production lines to meet orders which represent the special needs of foreign customers. Their staffs work overtime to meet the delivery date. Then it all passes from their control. They are then at the mercy of the shippers and the docks and all too often the goodwill they have built up can vanish overnight if one order fails to arrive in time.

Of course, this is particularly so at a time when it is essential to get orders for the Christmas trade out during the early months of the autumn, particularly for great countries like Australia and America where, having docked, the goods have to be spread and distributed throughout enormous continents. Already many firms in my constituency are receiving irate complaints from people who have not received in time the goods they ordered for the Christmas trade.

I would say that a dozen of my local firms are wholly export-minded and are geared to meet the challenge of exports in these competitive days. For example, the largest employer in my constituency makes radio, television and electronic equipment and exports to 77 different countries. As common form, the firm notifies the customer of the ship on which the cargo is booked. The firm reports that in recent months it has repeatedly had consignments turned back three days running. In order to keep its bond with its overseas buyers—and it won some of these valuable customers in fierce competition with other countries, particularly Japan—it has transported the goods to East Coast English ports and then transshipped them at Rotterdam—a process which doubles the freight costs.

Another firm specialises in paper-making exports and it, too, has had its lorries turned back from the docks four days running and has often been unable to ship on the vessel on which the goods were to have been shipped and which has often sailed with light cargo. These firms point out the immense extra cost of being held up for days at the docks, with the freezing of the manpower that should be engaged on other lorry loads.

Yet another firm exports to 50 countries. I know what a valuable exporter this firm is, since I asked it for a list of the countries to which it exports. It provides very important components for a subsidiary it has set up in Western Australia and which I had the privilege of visiting with the Parliamentary delegation to Australia. The firm in my constituency supplies specialised components from the Sidcup factory and regards it as vital to supply its subsidiary. In order to meet agreed dates, goods have been trans-shipped at Rotterdam and then sent to Freetown.

The London Docks are 12 to 14 miles from my constituency and are the natural outlet for these exporters. Of necessity, however, many of them have been forced to undertake the long haul to King's Lynn or Grimsby or Hull in order to keep delivery dates. Again these goods have been trans-shipped at Rotterdam, which must do a lot of business out of our delays.

Another well-known domestic appliance company in the Cray Valley exports, along with other factories throughout the country bearing the same name, to about 105 overseas territories. It has missed several ships. It has sometimes heard later that only half of the cargo has been loaded—and all without notification until outraged customers have demanded to know why only half the cargo has arrived. Conscious of the very intense competition from overseas, this company has always given top priority to the export trade. It is often found that ships on which its goods have been booked have sailed without them. One ship sailed 4,000 tons light of its cargo to Hong Kong and Singapore.

My constituents take the view that the quicker the export goods get to the customers the quicker we shall get their next order, and they are very deeply conscious that valuable customers are completely without some of the Christmas stock for which they placed orders last June—some even in March. The goods were produced and were ready to go on the right ships at the right time. Some firms have even told me that some overseas buyers have suggested they should cut their price by the 1½ per cent. bonus that the Government are giving to exporters.

Yet another firm, in which one of my constituents is interested, based in Scotland—the President of the Board of Trade has knowledge of it—exports over half of its refrigerator compressors. This trade totals about £3 million in exports a year. In the teeth of very strong European competition it was very proud to gain some very important Swedish orders. The goods were accepted at the Newcastle docks on 6th or 13th October, but not loaded, and it was not until the outraged customer sent a cable that the firm learned that the goods had not arrived. The customer pointed out that, without the shipment, his entire factory deliveries would be at a standstill. The firm had to find alternative means of delivery. Another consignment, this time to Hull, was not loaded although the ship sailed on 16th October 450 tons light, with the firm's goods left on the quayside.

I believe that our exporters are among the most valuable contributors to our economy and having won orders against the Japs, or the Americans or the Germans or anyone else, and having completed their orders, it is nothing short of heart breaking to find themselves black- listed by customers because the goods have not been delivered on the due date.

On the other side of the trade, I have had the position of the customer put to me both in Canada and Australia. I heard very bitter criticism indeed of our delivery dates. In Canada I heard complaints that Christmas goods had arrived six weeks late and that the company involved would never get another order. In Australia we on the Parliamentary delegation were somewhat searching in our inquiries as to why there was not a larger quantity of United Kingdom plant in the great and visionary Snowy Mountains project.

We were told the reason in the bluntest Australian fashion—and the Australians can speak bluntly when they want to. I happened to keep a detailed diary at the time and I looked up the entry last night. We were told: "Every stage of development is on time. We are dedicated to keeping this great project up to schedule. We have to plan our work for three months of snow and if your deliveries were a month late we would lose four months' operations. We are not interested in your dock troubles. If you cannot meet the delivery dates the Americans, the Swedes, the Japs and the Germans can and they get the orders."

I know what our docks can do. A relative of mine spent seven years trooping during and after the war and, having had experience of New York, Sydney and Cape Town, he has always boasted that no docks in the world can turn a ship round faster than London and Liverpool. This was the Dunkirk spirit in a war for freedom. We are now faced with an economic war for our survival as a great industrial nation and for the maintenance of the standard of living we want both to maintain and expand.

Exporters are powerless once the goods have left their plants and have been accepted by the docks. When one compares the speed of many competing docks abroad with the speed of our docks, one sees that their increased efficiency lies not only in modern layout and, in some instances, mechanisation, but also in a modern union approach, with fewer conflicting unions and far less demarcation of jobs.

I believe that our London dockers have nothing to learn in their skill, their knowledge and their handling of cargoes from any dockers anywhere in the world, however good and however modern the docks, but they are enmeshed in nineteenth century regulations which could be endured when cock-of-the-walk London had the greatest exporting docks in the world with very few competitors. Today the foreign customer is not interested in our problems. He is interested only in our deliveries.

I believe that the Minister and his colleagues face a very great challenge here. He and his colleagues, by speeding up the plans outlined by his predecessor in taking through the House, with all-party support, the Harbours Bill, which was based on the Rochdale Report, could strike a greater blow for our exports and encourage more customers to order our goods from abroad than could anyone else. If the right hon. Gentleman and, particularly, the Minister of Labour could help to improve not only the layout and the mechanisation but also the methods and the ramifications, which are so very nineteenth century, of many of the union practices in the docks today, they could do a great deal to help our exporters.

I speak very strongly on behalf of the very solid exporting group in my constituency. We can boast very full employment for my constituents. I hope that the Minister will consider the problem which I have raised as one which merits top priority.

2.22 p.m.

Mr. Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)

First, I should like to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Cold-field (Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd) on having introduced this vital subject on the Adjournment debate, and, secondly, I should like to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Dame Patricia Hornsby-Smith) on underlining so rightly the fact that what is needed more than anything else is a modern union approach to the situation in the docks. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield said, what is needed more than anything else is urgent action by the Government.

I intervene for only o few moments to give an example which I have experienced in Harwich, and which illustrates only too tragically one of the causes of the delays at present being experienced in the docks. This is a dispute between union and non-union labour. It is particularly related to what is happening in London, and it shows how the long tentacles of restrictive practices in the Port of London are trying to spread out to the smaller ports to where some firms have moved in order to get away from these very practices and in order to try to find some freedom in these smaller ports.

This example concerns a small firm employing just over 150 men in my constituency. The firm makes caravans, the vast majority of which go to the export trade. At present, its exports are being deliberately held up at the Port of Parkeston, and have been so held up for the last few weeks. Unfortunately, just over a month ago an industrial dispute resulted in the management sacking nine trade union members. Incidentally, the management, which consists of four brothers, has built up the firm over the past 10 years from nothing. During the last few years they have moved to Harwich from Ilford because of the restrictive practices in the London Docks and because of the ease with which it is possible to export from Harwich.

As a protest against the sacking of these trade union members, a number of workers walked out of the factory. Some time later an official strike was declared involving members of five unions, but mainly members of the National Union of Vehicle Builders. The men who went on strike claimed to have over 70 men on their strike register. They wanted union recognition at the factory. In spite of the loss of the union men, production at the factory is up and things are running very smoothly indeed.

But this is where the rub comes in: the union men in the Port of Parkeston, which is the British Railways port for Harwich, refuse to handle the vital exports of this firm because of this dispute, and a private enterprise port in Harwich, from which exports are sent to the Continent, is apparently nervous of exporting these caravans because of the action which might be taken by the National Union of Vehicle Builders.

It is a tragic situation, but I am sure that it portrays in a small way the very narrow-mindedness of some individuals who, because of a dispute which in many ways is none of their business, are holding up our vital exports to the Continent.

It is all very well for the Prime Minister to appeal for the Dunkirk spirit, but does he realise what the unions are doing in this case alone? I am most disturbed, for it shows how intolerant and interwoven the net of the unions is becoming and how, in this case, officially or unofficially, it is working to destroy the free flow of goods through our ports. If this is only an example of what is happening in the Port of London, I am most disturbed.

I know that London does not like the competition of the smaller ports, but how else, save by competition, are we to break this deadly stranglehold which the unions, through such practices, are putting on the lifeblood of the country? To show how much this competition is resented, I am told that the London Federation of Shop Stewards is holding a march through Harwich on 4th January to shake people up in the town to the advantages of trade unionism.

I have always supported trade unionism, but what is happening in the Ports of Parkeston and Harwich at a time like this, when every export should be sent abroad as soon as possible, shakes me. I hope that the Minister will look into this and will get in touch with the Minister of Labour to try to put an end to this practice which is preventing our vital exports from being sent abroad.

It does not surprise me in the least that we are having trouble with our exports when I hear such stories such as this. At a time like this, when one hopes that the spirit of Christmas will prevail, I hope that a little common sense will be introduced to iron out this sorry business which has gone on for over a month.

It is for this reason that I support most heartily my right hon. Friend's request, because now more than at any time urgent action is needed by the Government to get rid of these outworn practices and to introduce a spirit of urgency into our export trade. I therefore hope that the Minister of Labour and the Minister of Transport will take steps to end this sorry dispute which is afflicting my constituency and, I know, the country, too.

2.29 p.m.

Mr. Martin McLaren (Bristol, North-West)

I am glad to follow in the debate my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale), because he represents one docks constituency and I represent another, as I have the Port of Avonmouth in the part of Bristol which I represent. We have already been told various causes of delays in the docks. I should like to deal mainly with another—the fact that the physical layout of our ports and the approaches to them are obsolescent.

If we look at the history of docks in this country, we find that the great days of dock construction were in the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century, up to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. During the 50 years since 1914 relatively little development has taken place. Whether that was because the ownership of the docks did not have the spur of private enterprise, I do not know, but that is true as a historical fact. It therefore follows that the docks were laid out in the railway age before the internal combustion engine was invented.

For this reason, there is a network of railway lines and sidings in the docks, and both pedestrians and road traffic have to dodge between shunting trains at some peril to themselves. Before one even arrives at the dock gate one has to thread one's way through a collection of narrow and antiquated streets.

In these conditions, it is not surprising if road transport cannot be deployed to the best advantage or if there are prolonged delays in the docks. This is a situation which I judge is likely to become more acute as each year passes, since the tendency is to use road transport rather than rail transport for sending goods to the docks. As has been said by my right hon. and hon. Friends, how different the picture is in continental ports such as Hamburg and Rotterdam. They had the great advantage of having to rebuild from scratch following war damage, and they certainly seized that opportunity with both hands. This is perhaps one reason why we run the risk that in marginal cases shipping may be diverted by shipowners from our ports to continental ports. That is especially so in the entrepôt trade.

Faced, as we are, with these delays, we might do well to look round the country and away from the congestion of the south-east of England or Merseyside and consider whether we can lay out a modern and spacious system suitable to modern road transport with wide boulevards where lorries can be dealt with and called forward by the aid of computers and electronic devices. This is possible in this age of automation.

An example which I should like to mention for three or four minutes comes from next door to my constituency. I refer to the proposal of the Port of Bristol Authority for an entirely new dock development at a place called Portbury, on the other side of the River Avon from the existing docks at Avonmouth. There is available there an open site of 2,000 acres which is near the deep water, and on one of the four major estuaries in this country—the Thames, Humber, Mersey and the Bristol Channel—where the Rochdale Committee recommended that dock development should be specially concentrated.

One of the special features of this place at Portbury is that it will have access by road which will be unparalleled by and second to that of no other dock, because it is very close to the cross roads of the M.4 from London to South Wales and the M.5 from Birmingham to Exeter. Therefore, every point of the compass can be reached by motorway transport. It is also close to the existing management at Avonmouth and to the existing supplies of dock labour. It is estimated that this development will cost about £27 million, but the Port of Bristol is able to find the whole of that sum through its own resources and borrowing capacity without asking for help from the taxpayer or ratepayer.

Under the Harbours Act, 1964, it rests with the National Ports Council to decide whether this project should be recommended to the Minister of Transport. The Council has been invited to go to Portbury to make a personal inspection of the site. I have been given to understand that, in reply, it has said that it will try to go there about Easter next year. We feel rather disappointed that it cannot go more promptly. I venture to say that it should respond to the invitation with a greater sense of urgency.

To support that, I should like to read one very short paragraph from the Rochdale Report. Paragraph 68 is the last paragraph in the chapter entitled Are the major ports adequate to meet present and future national needs? It states: We wish finally to observe that major development schemes normally take several years to complete and we therefore emphasise the importance of plans for suitable high priority schemes being drawn up and work starting without delay. The longer a start is delayed the more serious will be the consequences later on. Perhaps the Chairman of the National Ports Council will remind himself of those wise words of the Rochdale Committee and introduce a greater sense of urgency into the timing of his visit. I know that the Council has a great many different things to do and has been asked to go to a great many places, but we urge that this is an assignment of first importance.

The Report recommended that the question of a decision on Portbury should be postponed until a proposed merger between Bristol and Newport had taken place, but since then it has been agreed that that proposed merger should be abandoned and therefore the way is clear for approval of the Portbury project.

Time moves on. It is now nearly four years since the Rochdale Committee was appointed—in March, 1961. It is 2½ years since it reported—in July, 1962. It must be remembered that the mere setting up of the Rochdale Committee has contributed to the delay, because it was naturally said, first, "We must wait until the Rochdale Committee has reported." Then, when it reported, it was said, "We must wait until the National Ports Council has been set up and has had a chance to grapple with its many problems." It is, however, important that the Council should not become a brake on dock development. It should be an accelerator and a spur. If projects such as Portbury can rapidly he improved and carried out we may have some hope that the delays in the docks, which are the subject of this debate, may be reduced for the benefit of the national economy.

2.40 p.m.

Mr. John Harvey (Walthamstow, East)

If I begin with, perhaps, the uncharitable comment that the colossal emptiness of the benches opposite has produced so far not one hon. Member who is apparently interested in this vital topic, the Minister will, perhaps, forgive me for that opening if I go on to accept that he has been in office only a relatively few weeks and that in the quite considerable volume of correspondence that I have already transacted both with him and with his Joint Parliamentary Secretary, and in watching their performance at the Dispatch Box, I am impressed so far with the Department's work. That is not necessarily something that I would be prepared to concede of every other Minister and Parliamentary Secretary on the benches opposite. I will say that in the spirit of Christmas.

To come to the point of this afternoon's debate, the Minister would, I am sure, concede that a satisfactory solution to this very real problem is vital to each and every one of us, because the problem is today a serious brake on export efficiency from the United Kingdom. To me, that is what matters, and it should be what matters to anyone in any part of the House of Commons as we consider the situation that this all too brief debate is bringing to the notice of the House.

The first thing that needs to be said is that whatever one may argue about the docks and the need for modernisation, on which some commencement has already been made and on which, certainly, we shall support the Minister in any proposals which he has for further progress, the fact which is salient today is that a ship in the Port of London is being worked for only 25 per cent. of the time she spends in port.

An average cargo vessel today, having been specially constructed, let it be borne in mind, for higher speeds than we were ever used to in my day in the Merchant Navy, having been specially constructed for higher speeds to hasten trade across the seas of the world—

Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd

And at considerable expense.

Mr. Harvey

—at considerable expense, as my right hon. Friend correctly interjects, is subject in London to inordinate delays in comparison with most other ports that one can think of. Indeed, in many ports a ship would be expected to be worked for 50 or 60 per cent. of her time in port as a matter of course and, as has been pointed out, in some of the most modern ports 100 per cent. is capable of achievement.

When the figure gets down to 25 per cent. and when one bears in mind that it costs roughly £35,000 a month to run a modern ship of 8,000–10,000 tons, if she is delayed for 75 per cent. of her time in any port this is a crippling charge on the running of the ship and a crippling burden upon our capacity as a nation to export efficiently.

The problem has become much accentuated in recent months because of the refusal in the Port of London to work over weekends. One can understand, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd), who initiated this debate, suggested, some of the background to the labour problems that exist in the industry, but one thing which one cannot accept is that the unions should at one and the same time refuse weekend work and refuse to countenance any expansion in the dock labour force.

I do not this afternoon want to enter into any deep arguments about the long-term solution of the problem of dock labour beyond accepting what has already been suggested that progress to a shift system, with all that it may mean in terms of additional wages in the docks, but all that it should mean, too, in terms of additional efficiency, is almost certainly the right sort of long-term or even medium-term answer at which to aim.

The point I am anxious to make this afternoon is that since about March of this year in the Port of London, one of the world's greatest ports and one of the most vital ports to Britain's capacity to export, we have been faced with a labour situation which is militating against our whole capacity to export efficiently. This must necessarily be of as much concern to the Government as to these benches, and of as much concern to the Minister of Transport as to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and to the Minister of Labour. It is a matter to which someone must find a sensible answer and to which the Dunkirk spirit certainly must find a sensible answer as quickly as possible. That is the most fundamental point I want to make.

I not infrequently go down to the docks in London. I was there only last week and I was struck by the simply colossal congestion and the fact that long queues of traffic were occasioned by one driver, who had probably himself become fed up with a long period of waiting, who had done something rather stupid and held up 30 or 40 other lorries all waiting to get through to different ships. This sort of thing happens almost daily.

I wonder whether the Minister of Transport might not almost immediately try to seize himself of information about how much railway track there is, especially in some of the older docks in London, that is virtually never used nowadays and whether he might not then deduce that the sensible thing is to give immediate orders for this sort of track to be concreted over to become either an additional means of access for lorries or turning and manœuvring ground for them, which of itself would facilitate the progress of the eternal procession of road vehicles that are trying to get things into or out of the docks.

Anyone who goes down to the docks today and witnesses the congestion there cannot but marvel at how the stuff ever gets to the docks in the first place, because the congestion often begins long before it gets to the docks. I recognise that this is a medium to long-term problem, but these are the sort of questions which have to be answered.

It is in this positive spirit that I have tried briefly to pose some of the real problems that now exist and which, for one perhaps human reason or another, have become exacerbated during 1964. It probably has to be conceded that an abnormally heavy volume of imports during this year has also added to the congestion, but the fact remains that there is serious congestion and that some answer has to be found to it.

And some answer must be evoked in terms of good will from the dockers themselves. Some answer must be found which will get people back at work on Saturdays and Sundays—in their own interests, certainly; but in the national interest very much more than their own, because otherwise the export trade, on which the solvency of the Government and of the nation depends more than on anything else, is doomed to suffer as seriously in 1965 as it has disappointed our hopes in 1964.

So let me, in this I hope not too partisan spirit, stress to the right hon. Gentleman that, whatever party points one might care to make across the Floor on this particular issue, the need for action now is imperative, and that it is to him, and one or two of his colleagues immediately concerned, we have to look for action now.

2.51 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I suppose it is no exaggeration to say that, after defence, the two most important jobs of a Government are to maintain a high level of employment and to maintain a high level of exports. It is certainly no exaggeration to say that in exports the dockers hold the key to the solution of the difficulties which we have been discussing this afternoon in this debate. It is no good our talking about incentives for exports if we cannot get the goods across the docks, and we cannot get the goods across the docks unless we have peaceful, proper labour relations in the docks.

Of course, the need for improvement in labour relations applies to many industries, but it is particularly urgent in the docks at present. If anyone had set out deliberately to devise the most chaotic, the most ridiculous, the most Alice in Wonderland wage structure he could not have done better than the wage structure for dockers at present. For half his earnings the docker relies on special rates and plusages, and it is he who takes a risk on whether he can earn those or not. That is to say, he takes the risk whether a vessel waiting to be loaded or unloaded happens to carry those special rates.

The docker's basic wage was, until recently, £9 9s. 2d. a week. Now the recommendation of the Devlin Report is £10 8s. 4d. a week. The average of earnings for dockers is £18 18s. 5d. a week, probably something varying between £17 and £20 a week, in different parts of the country. That sounds good, but it is desperately difficult for a docker and his family to run a home on earnings which fluctuate between £9 and £30 a week; and it is pure luck which week he gets that £30.

That sort of bingo type of earnings is not calculated to bring about decent labour relations. I think that anything more calculated to cause continual friction and unrest can scarcely be imagined. Yet both sides of the industry at present, including the Devlin Committee, seek to patch up this type of wage structure, to perpetuate it by adding little bits on to it. For example, the Devlin Committee advised an increase of 19s. 2d. in the basic wage.

I would suggest that we scrap completely this type of wage structure and replace it by weekly contracts between the individual employer and the registered docker, contracts for a five-day week, eight hours a day, a 40-hour week, at £20 a week; £20 a week for a docker who has been registered for five years, to start as a registered docker at £15 a week. He would have the usual additions for overtime on more than a 40-hour week, but we should cut out any reliance on special rates. I will not weary the House about the details of those who might not be able to obtain weekly contracts, but that can be worked out fairly for them.

I am convinced that if the present system were scrapped—and I believe that that is desired by the majority of dockers—and replaced by a weekly wage-paid registered labour force, then the scheme, given a chance, would bring about very much better relations on the docks, and from that we should be able to decrease the delays on the docks and get exports across the docks. If there is to be any scheme of this sort, it must be under an enforceable contract between the unions and the employers, lasting for some considerable time—a firm contract for, say, three years.

The unions really must abandon their cut-throat local empire building. As representing a constituency on Merseyside and having had some experience of Liverpool docks, as I am there fairly frequently, I have seen the irreparable damage which has been done by the squabbles between the "White" and "Blue" unions. The unions should be capable of entering into a binding and enforceable contract for at least a matter of three years with the employers' associations for a firm, steady wage such as I have described. The contract should provide for joint authority formed by the two unions concerned to negotiate with the employers and to arrange welfare matters.

Of course, one cannot achieve everything by agreements concerning labour, but such agreements as I have suggested would apply modern ideas of service and pay, modern ideas of conditions of work, to a very conservative industry—"conservative" with a small "c"—and an almost hereditary industry, for every present docker seems to come from a line of dockers; their families have always been dockers; and they are very conservative, and very reluctant to change their ways.

So we need not only the realisation of these difficulties in labour relations, but also, of course, physical modernisation of the docks—modernisation of the docks, and of the handling of goods on the docks, and, indeed, modernisation of the housing of the dockers. The docker, if anybody, is a man who needs to live near his work.

There is the greatest opportunity around our docks for pilot schemes of new towns within the old. I think that the Government ought to give attention to the rebuilding of the homes of dockers around the docks, and, in addition, working into a scheme of that sort, the improvement of the docks themselves. The docks themselves must be quickly improved and expanded. The lack of deep water berths is nothing less than a scandal.

I have a constituency interest here, which, for the benefit of those on Merseyside, I can express by saying that I want Disraeli alongside Gladstone. The Disraeli, or Beaconsfield Dock, was planned about half a century ago, and it is only this year that the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board has asked for a report on whether it is feasible to build that new dock. Perhaps the Government might look at this to see whether the scheme can be brought forward to provide the new dock facilities at an early date.

Much has been done in the Liverpool docks to improve handling equipment, and productivity per man has increased substantially over the past few years, but the Government could assist in quickening the pace of modernisation of materials handling. After all, we subsidise hot houses for forcing the growth of tomatoes. Might we not subsidise, at least by loan, fork lifts for forcing the growth of exports? Machinery and equipment are not enough. There is the human element, too, and it is essential that some intense work study be applied to handling on the docks.

Nothing could be more rewarding in economic benefit to this country than to get the labour relations right at the docks by permanent rather than casual employment, to improve the security of the docker in his work and in his home, and to improve the physical handling of goods at the docks.

3.3 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

I shall try to limit what I have to say to four or five minutes to allow adequate time to the two right hon. Gentlemen who are to close this part of the debate. In any event, I think that the Minister of Transport must feel slightly like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark, because he knows very well, and he is sitting their brooding over it, that any short-term solution of this problem, the reality of which we recognise, lies with his right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour rather than with himself.

The damage caused by the present situation has been well described by my right hon. and hon. Friends and I do not wish to traverse that ground again except to mention, by way of example, a letter to the Press recently by one of my constituents, who pointed out that out of 331 cases delivered to the London docks on time, only 31 cases had been loaded on to a ship by 5 p.m. The dockers then refused to work overtime and stopped work. Thus, 300 cases were left behind as the ship had to sail the next day, and a delay of a week occurred before the cases could be dispatched to the United States—another example of the split consignment to which my hon. Friend referred.

He went on to say: Owing to the 'Go Slow' activities in the London Docks there are often 50 or more lorries in a queue waiting to unload goods. One consignment to France of heavy cases and light ones was delayed because the dockers went on strike because they wanted extra money for loading light cargo. Later in his letter he pointed out that to keep a customer he had to consign his freight by air at ten times the cost, and of course at a ruinous loss to his company, but he thought it worth while to do that to keep the customer.

That is the state of affairs about which we are concerned today. What is the cause of it, and what can be done to cure it? This is at the moment a short-term problem. We all know that there are long-term and physical considerations for a cure—such as were considered by the Rochdale Committee and for which the way has been paved by the 1964 Act—but they will take a long time. This is something which has primarily developed since March, when the somewhat unexpected wage claim was put in. It would be nice to think that Mr. Cousins could solve the problem, but, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, Mr. Cousins had reached agreement with the employers on 1st October and it was repudiated by a delegate conference.

The real trouble at the present time in the London Docks is that nobody is in control on the labour side. The union leadership is not ill-disposed in this matter. Even the blue card union is perhaps not ill-disposed, but unofficial elements are in fact in command, and London is now the only port in the United Kingdom which is not operating weekend work. That is where the worst delays occur. When conditions have reached their present state, nothing but overtime and weekend working can clear up the mess. That is why I describe this as a short-term problem. All the other things are desirable, necessary, and valuable, but when things are in their present state in the London Docks, only overtime and weekend working will do what is necessary.

We would get overtime and weekend working if it were left to the unions, to the Dock Labour Board, or to the Minister of Labour. Perhaps I can help the right hon. Gentleman by saying what he would find it embarrassing to say. The fact is that labour relations in the London Docks are in the control of two or three men who are Communists, and whose main interest seems to be to damage the interests of their country. That is why we are in this situation. They are in fact ensconced in a position of tremendous power to inflict harm on the commercial interests of this country. They are inflicting this harm, and nobody seems able to stop them. That is why I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman's right hon. Friend is not here. This is a problem which he has to face to get responsible labour relations back into the docks.

I know that there are two sides to everything. There is a history stretching into the past, but the question is, whose turn is it now to contribute to the short-term position in the London Docks? The men have had the Devlin award, and progress is being made in the other matters. It is their turn, and there is no other solution in the short term. I do not know how he is going to solve this problem, but it is one which I leave on the right hon. Gentleman's plate.

3.8 p.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Wolverhampton, South-West)

This debate has posed a case which calls for an answer. I do not think that anyone can mistake the fact that the growing volume of anxiety about the operation of our docks points to a real problem. No doubt one example or another which is quoted may be attributable to purely special causes—one cannot investigate and analyse them all—but there certainly would not be this general feeling, not merely of dissatisfaction, but of utter frustration, about the operation of our docks unless there were a real and a recent phenomenon before us.

It is, moreover, a phenomenon which, though it is not limited to London—and hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have referred to other ports—does concentrate to a great degree on the Port of London, as I think was summed up in one figure quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, East (Mr. John Harvey) when he contrasted the fraction of time during which a ship is worked in the London docks with the average in docks generally.

No doubt there is a long-term aspect to the problem of dock working. No doubt there is much to be done—and some of the speeches, such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. McLaren), referred to some of it—in providing this country with as modern a dock system as greater misfortune has helped other countries to acquire; but we are not this afternoon concerned with that. We are concerned with the short-term problem, a real and urgent one, which, in its present phase and intensity, was not there at all six or nine months ago.

I recognise that there is a division of ministerial responsibility here; that responsibility is divided between at least three Departments—the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Labour and the Board of Trade—[An HON. MEMBER: "And the Prime Minister."] Yes, and the Prime Minister. But I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman recognises that he speaks from that Bench for the Government, and that he will not seek to reply to the debate on a narrowly departmental basis.

I put it to him briefly that, confronted with this recent real and urgent phenomenon, it is his duty to state his analysis of the causes and his explanation why difficulties which did not exist six or nine months ago are now causing this outcry from exporters and industrial areas throughout the country; and then, having candidly analysed what he considers to be the reasons for this, to state, as far as the answers are within the power of the Government, what the Government intend to do.

My last word is to reiterate the urgency of the matter. A number of studies are in progress. The right hon. Gentleman could mention—it has not been mentioned so far—the second part of the Devlin investigation. But the amelioration of this situation is needed in weeks rather than months, not to mention years. I hope that it will be in that time scale that the right hon. Gentleman will pitch his reply to what I am sure he will recognise has been an extremely responsible debate.

3.12 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Tom Fraser)

I say at once that the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd) could not have chosen a more apt subject for debate as we go away for the Christmas Recess than the subject of the great congestion in our docks and its adverse effect upon our export business.

This matter has given me great cause for worry during the few weeks that I have been in office. A great deal of the discussion has centred around the responsibility of the dockers for the troubles that we have at present, and I make no complaint about that. Nor shall I seek to dodge the issue by saying that this is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour.

But what I do say right away is that the great improvements which have been brought about in the techniques of production in our manufacturing industries have in no way been matched by the improvements in the techniques of transport, of getting our goods from the factories to the docks, or, within the docks themselves, in the handling of goods for export, or even goods imported into this country.

Of course, there have been improvements here and there, and a lot of money has been spent here and there on new equipment. But no one can deny that in the handling of goods we have not made anything like the progress that has been made in the manufacturing of goods. None of us is satisfied with what has been achieved so far, even in manufacturing. This only brings out how far short we are falling of what must be achieved in the interests of the country in the transport of goods and their handling, particularly for export.

Not surprisingly, several hon. Members have paid tribute to my predecessor. I do not complain about that, but they have given the impression that he had brought a very great drive into the solution of the problem that we are dealing with. I take leave to cast a little doubt on that. I remember the debate on the Rochdale Committee's Report and the passage of the Bill, and I well appreciate how much it was supported on all sides. But it was a long-term Measure, and what we were doing then was merely to create machinery by which we would in future seek the improvements in the docks which were recognised by all to be absolutely essential to the improvement of our trade with other parts of the world.

Incidentally, the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. McLaren), after some of his hon. Friends had greatly praised the right hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples), hardly seemed to be doing that when he complained about the time it had taken between the setting-up of the Rochdale Committee and the receipt of its Report, and pointed out that a long time had also elapsed since we had that Report, and that we were still waiting for things to happen.

Much as I would like to discuss the long-term solutions of the problem, I would have thought that if I did so I would be rightly accused of misusing this occasion. What we have to do now is to concentrate our attention on the problems immediately in front of us. I say at once that the single most effective step towards reducing the present congestion would be a full resumption of weekend working. I have no doubt of that whatsoever, and I would have thought that no responsible person could duck that. It is the greatest single cause of delay, and so the greatest single contribution to solving the problem could be made if the dockers undertook to go back to their normal practice of overtime and weekend working.

I make the strongest possible appeal to those who may influence the decision of the dockers to appreciate the damage that they are doing to the well-being of our great nation by steps which they may think are supportable in their demand or desire to have leisure over the weekend, like most other people. I am not averse to their looking to the possibility of a longer-term solution of their problem, but if they try to solve it in the short term at the expense of the economic well-being of this country it may be that in the result we shall all have greater problems to face and solve in the future.

I know full well that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour would say just as much as I would on this, and perhaps even more. In any case he would say it much more ably than I do. Too little has been done over the last half century to put our docks and ports into reasonable order. I do not want to apportion blame—I have made my appeal to the workers—but I must tell the House that my inquiries in recent weeks have shown that the very exporters whom we want to help, and with whom we have the greatest sympathy, are sometimes themselves to blame for the congestion.

We hear a lot about the rule among our workers of "last in, first out". The consignors of exports know this one, too. When they know the period during which a ship will be loaded they know that if they can get their goods loaded last they will be unloaded first. Knowing that, they endeavour to be last in, with the result that there is little doing at the beginning of the period when the ship should be loading, and a very busy time towards the date when the ship is due to sail. Sometimes, indeed, consignors send their goods to the ship the day after it should have left on its journey overseas, banking on the ship's being delayed, as it so frequently has been in the past, because of congestion in the docks.

What can we do about this? The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield said that a committee of officials was not enough. Obviously the right hon. Gentleman knew of the committees of officials, presided over by the Permanent Secretary of my Department, which has been dealing with this problem in recent weeks. A committee of officials may sometimes be able to get around a lot more than a committee of Ministers.

This committee of officials has been doing a very useful job of work. I am delighted to say—though hon. Members should not take my delight as complacency—that it has met with some success. The congestion which is of the greatest importance to us is that which exists in the Port of London and at Liverpool. Most of our exports go through these two great ports. These are the two ports where the congestion has been worst.

In the many meetings which have taken place, the Chamber of Shipping has cooperated by providing for the diversion of ships to other ports. Sometimes it is felt that not enough is being done in that way. The dock authorities are undertaking a more systematic form of notifying the exporters, the consignors, about when they will be able to get to a ship. Some very surprising things have happened in this connection, at least they were surprising to me. I discovered that when it was sought to improve the system of informing the exporters the work involved put an undue strain on the available telephone service and that many additional telephones had to be installed.

Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd

The representation of the Port of London in Birmingham and the Midlands has been very useful. I believe that it would help very much were the size of that representation increased in Birmingham so that contact could be kept with exporters.

Mr. Fraser

I shall be delighted to do what I can to help in that matter.

I believe that there is a considerable delay, but having said a word about the telephones let me say something about the lorries. The Road Haulage Association is not happy at having so many lorries standing about for days on end in the docks. The Association is co-operating in getting a more consistent and regular flow of vehicles, as it may be notified, so as to avoid drivers and loads being held up too long when they arrive inside the docks. My information is, and all the inquiries have suggested, that the delays are caused within the docks and not on the highway on the way to the docks. It is a problem at the docks and not highway congestion generally as some people seemed to assume that it might be.

A lot of congestion in the docks is occasioned by the handling of goods coming into the docks and keeping the exports out of the docks. I was a little surprised to find that there was so much delay resulting in this way. Apparently importers have used the sheds and other facilities to an excessive extent by marking up their imports for customers in the sheds, and sometimes in the ships thus holding up the unloading of the ships. This sort of thing has gone on, I believe, to an inordinate length, and has caused unjustifiable delays in the turn round of ships at the docks.

I assume the major responsibility in this matter, but I feel that I have been considerably helped by the committee of officials which has been working on this problem during recent weeks. This does not mean that I am prepared to leave the matter there. I am not. I regard this as something to which I must continue to give my personal attention almost day to day. I am sure that I speak for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour, also, when I say that I shall not rest content until the congestion has been removed and we have solved the problem of the long waiting periods about which we read—I have been reading about them more than most in the past four weeks.

I cannot pretend that I can see this problem being solved immediately. Even with the resumption of weekend working it looks as if it would now be a month or more before the London docks, in particular, could be freed to get back to normal working. If we do not have a resumption of weekend working nobody knows how long this will go on. I shall not go into a lot of the statistical detail which I have before me, or seek to reply individually to the speeches which have been made. I think that it would be as well if I were not to do that, but rather give the House my assurance, which I so readily do, that a great many of the things which have been said—although they had relevance to the problems at particular docks and were posed to hon. Members, very rightly, by exporters—bear strong similarities to the representations made to me over a wider field.

I am most anxious to solve the problem. I shall continue to give it all my attention. I have had a lot of consultations with my colleagues. I shall continue to consult them and to take every possible step I can to break through the barrier which is standing in the way of the successful discharge of our responsibilities in the export field.

Mr. Harold Gurden (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Since there is a considerable amount of agreement on the necessity for overtime and weekend working, could not the Minister possibly invoke the assistance of his right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour in getting an emergency meeting immediately after Christmas to see whether we could not get something moving very quickly?

Mr. Fraser

I will certainly do that, but I am mindful that a good many of the things I have talked about are being looked at by the Devlin Committee. But that Committee, of course, is long term, and we must not let that stand in the way of what we might be able to do now. I will certainly look into that suggestion with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour.

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