§ The Minister of Labour (Mr. R. J. Gunter)
With permission Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement.
I have received the final Report of the Committee under the chairmanship of Lord Devlin, which has been inquiring into labour problems in the port transport industry.
The Report was published at 12 noon today as a Command Paper.
The Report makes radical and constructive proposals for solving the longstanding labour problems in the industry. The Government attach the highest importance to the Report. The modernisation of labour relations, including a reduction in the number of employers and the efficient organisation of manpower, and the provision of improved working conditions, are all essential for the industry itself and for the development of the export trade on which our economy depends.
The Government, the port employers, the unions and the Dock Labour Board, will need to give urgent consideration to the proposals for action and I shall have discussions with those concerned at a very early date.
The Government are most grateful to Lord Devlin, and the other members of the Committee, for the work and thought that they have given to this difficult and vital problem.
§ Sir K. Joseph
As it is since only last evening that I entered the Minister's field of work and have had the chance to see this Report, I must apologise for any shortcomings in my comments upon it.
I am a little surprised by the brevity of the Minister's statement. Would not he agree that this is a brilliant analysis which the Committee has presented which gives him a well-argued, systematic and constructive set of proposals? Would not he also agree that the Report spares no one or no body in its criticism while 1893 paying tribute to some notable initiatives and some honourable failures on both sides of the industry?
Would the right hon. Gentleman accept that it seems on a first reading that Lord Devlin and his colleagues have managed to suggest ways by which regular employment, with all that that should mean in mutual obligations and trust between private employers and employees, can be reconciled with the inevitable fluctuations in demand for labour in the docks still to be safeguarded by the Docks Labour Board?
Perhaps the Minister would acknowledge that the Report also gives the country a glimpse of the operations, clearly referred to in paragraphs 21, 62, 109, 113 and 114, of the work of a minority—I stress a "minority"—of wreckers. He will agree that action is urgently needed, and that it is sad to see that in paragraph 286—[HON. MEMBERS: "Too long."] I ask the Minister to agree that it is sad to see from paragraph 286 that… all the running has been made by the employers on the one side and the dissidents on the other.The paragraph goes on to say:At the moment the future depends on the T. and G.May I put some specific questions to the Minister? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] This is a very important Report. In seeking to reduce the number of employers, would the Minister assure us that he will safeguard the right of new entrants to the industry? We recognise that the number of employers should be thinned out, but we do not want a monopoly created even of a few firms. Would the right hon. Gentleman further agree—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Would he look at paragraph 323—
§ Mr. John Hynd
On a point of order. As we have not yet had the opportunity of seeing this Report, is much purpose to be served by discussing its details?
§ Mr. Speaker
I do not think that that raises a point of order, but I should like to take the opportunity of pointing out that all I am allowed to allow on a statement is the asking of a few questions. It is very difficult to fit in many questions by back bench Members if Front Bench 1894 Members ask all the questions. I wish not to reprove, but to invite indulgence.
§ Sir K. Joseph
I am grateful, Mr. Speaker. I have nearly finished.
Will the Minister please bear in mind that the users who are not referred to in paragraph 323 should share the benefits as well as the employers and the employees? We on this side of the House ask the Minister to accept that we want to do nothing to make his task harder, that we note the high hopes mentioned in paragraph 326, and that we wish him all success. We shall not press him prematurely, but we ask him to recognise that paragraph 326 invites the Government to make a firm statement about their own intent to legislate if it should become necessary. Would the right hon. Gentleman give us the assurance that he will take urgent, prompt, personal action on this vital Report?
§ Mr. Gunter
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to this most difficult field. I immediately concur with his reference to the Report being a brilliant analysis and the other points which he made in praise of the Report. When the right hon. Gentleman asks for specific assurances on any part of the Report, he will appreciate that the discussions which must ensue next week, I hope, with the interested parties are bound to be of a very sensitive and delicate character, and that it would be unfortunate if I were to express an opinion on any paragraph in the Report until I had met the interested parties. The points which the right hon. Gentleman has raised are very much in my mind.
§ Mr. Frank Allaun
In view of the attacks on the dockers which we hear—and Manchester and Salford is the third biggest docks in the country—will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that some dockers have to handle loads of 80 lb. and that this leads to accidents and overstrain? Do not let us pay too much attention to this attack on the "idle dockers", because some of them do far more work in a day than we do in a week.
§ Mr. Gunter
All that I would say to that is that I do not know that anybody has attacked the dockers.
§ Mr. Tilney
Does the Minister think that it will be possible to solve the great 1895 difficulties of the two unions on Merseyside and decasualisation generally?
§ Mr. Maxwell
Could my right hon. Friend say how long, in his opinion, it will take for some aspects of this Report to be implemented so that they make a real difference to exporters either in the speed which it takes to get through the docks or in costs? Secondly, what suggestions has my right hon. Friend to make about the steps which exporters might take to assist him and the industry in implementing this vital Report?
§ Mr. Gunter
The Report draws attention to the importance of exports, and that is why it is to be welcomed and why there should be a great sense of urgency in solving the problem. I hope that the Report will be implemented as soon as possible. However, the negotiations and discussions are bound to be of a delicate but not, I hope, protracted character. I am open to any suggestions from anywhere.
§ Mr. David Steel
Will the Minister undertake to make another statement to the House after we return from the Recess, indicating how the discussions are going between the Government, port employers, unions and the Docks Labour Board?
§ Mr. Gunter
I hope to be in a better position to report on how the discussions are going when we return from the Recess.
§ Mr. Peter Emery
Nobody wishes to complicate the Minister's task, but would not he say that, in principle, the Government intend to be widely guided by the plan of action outlined at the back of the Report? [HON. MEMBERS: "We do not have the Report."] It is in the Vote Office. Hon. Members could get it half an hour ago. Would not the Minister agree that an indication that the Government intended in principle to carry out much of what is in the Report would greatly assist and speed the negotiations which have to take place?
§ Mr. Gunter
The Government accept the Report generally as a basis for further action. The precise steps to be 1896 taken will become clear when I have had the discussions to which I have referred. However, I assure the House that we are determined to ensure that this opportunity of bringing about a vital improvement in the docks will not be lost.
§ Mr. Deedes
On a point of order. While appreciating your own difficulties, Mr. Speaker, and without wishing any discourtesy to the Minister, may I point out that the time is now nearly twenty minutes to one, that we have had three Government statements which have occupied the last 40 minutes and that there is to be a Royal Commission today which will further break into the time of back-bench Members? May I enter a rather strong protest on behalf of backbench Members and all those interested in today's Adjournment debates?
§ Mr. Speaker
I was about to conclude this matter and to make some observations on those lines myself. Without further comment, I leave the matter to the right hon. Gentleman. Perhaps I might say that I shall have to ask my fellow Members, to whom I have thought fit to allot time for Adjournment debates, to impact their speeches as much as they can so that we do not squeeze out others.