HC Deb 19 January 1965 vol 705 cc29-31
Q7. Mr. Eldon Griffiths

asked the Prime Minister which Minister has overall responsibility for tackling the current delays in the docks, which are holding up British exports.

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport has general responsibility for port matters; my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour is responsible for labour questions in the docks as elsewhere. They, and my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, are working together on the problems highlighted by the current dock congestion.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Will the Prime Minister urge on those three of his colleagues who are responsible for the situation in the ports that there is a feeling of humiliation in this great shipping country that we should be reduced to a situation in which our exports are held up in this disgraceful fashion? Will he further urge upon them the possibility that some of the congestion in London might be eased if Midlands industrialists were more frequently to use the East Coast ports?

The Prime Minister

I think that the whole House is sufficiently well aware of the gravity of this problem without any hon. Gentleman seeking to make it worse by some of the adjectives that the hon. Member himself thought fit to use. My right hon. Friends and I myself have spent a lot of time on the problem, and were it not for reasons which I think the House appreciates, in a statement that I still hope to make soon about exports I would have been dealing very fully with this question. I would, however, advise the hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members to recognise that the problems in the docks are very deep-seated—very deep- seated indeed. They go back partly to the whole problem of the organisation of the docks, which really needs bringing up to date, quite apart from the appeals we have all made to men already working ten hours a week overtime to work at weekends as well.

Mr. Grimond

Can the Prime Minister say how far these consultations between his colleagues that are going on about the situation in the docks are taking into account the need to modernise the whole docks system to which he refers? Can he say how much truth there is in the allegation that goods are sent unnecessarily not only from the Midlands but from the north of England and Scotland on over-congested roads to the south of England, that could be accepted by other ports? What steps are being taken, if this allegation is true, to induce industrialists to use ports nearer to their industries?

The Prime Minister

The question of mechanisation and road access—a very important point made by the right hon. Gentleman—the organisation of the ports, that part of the congestion which is due to bad planning or to people holding back consignments so as to be last on the ship, as well as all the labour aspects, are being thoroughly gone into and, as I have said, I would have hoped by this time to have been able to make a statement to the House about it.

Mr. Snow

While my right hon. Friend's remarks about the seriousness of the situation are acceptable to all sides of the House, is it not the fact that in the light of increasing world export trade there has been insufficient capital investment in our docks? May not the fact that there have been serious dock difficulties both in Western Germany and in America put the present situation into its proper light?

The Prime Minister

There are a lot of problems, many of them going back a long way. There are still in this industry—and I probably represent in this House as many dock workers as any hon. Member—the scars left from the old days of casual labour, with fears of unemployment. There is certainly the problem of mechanisation, the need for modernization—including the greater use of computers—and many other things. And there is the problem that we all have to face up to, shown by the fact that, in the very week when we made the very highest appeal to men to work a high degree of overtime, within a day of that appeal 400 men were out of work in the docks.

Mr. Godber

While recognising the difficulties of the situation, may I ask if the Prime Minister will tell us when we may expect to receive the full Report of the Devlin Committee?

The Prime Minister

I agree with the right hon. Member that the further Report by Lord Devlin's Committee will be of great importance in dealing with one broad part of the problem. As the right hon. Member knows, Lord Devlin's Committee is dealing with the whole question of labour relations and labour organisation in the docks. I felt, however, that hon. Members are also interested in these other problems associated with the docks which are not part of Lord Devlin's terms of reference. I am not sure how soon we shall be able to get the Report, but we are taking steps to see that by the time it is received our ideas will be a great deal clearer on all the other things which need to be done in the docks.