HC Deb 13 June 1966 vol 729 cc1044-9
The Minister of Labour (Mr. R. J. Gunter)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement.

The Report of the Court of Inquiry on the immediate issue in the seamen's dispute was published on 8th June. I am most grateful to Lord Pearson and his colleagues for doing this first stage of their work so quickly and thoroughly.

The Report proposed that a settlement should be reached on the following lines: a 48 hour week to be introduced now and a 40 hour week in a year's time, annual leave to be increased to 39 days, and the employers' offer of an increase of 12s. 6d. a month in efficiency pay to be withdrawn.

The Report also urged the two sides of the industry to co-operate in securing a cut of two hours in overtime over the next year as a first step in a longer term reduction of hours worked at sea. The Court estimates the cost of a settlement on these lines at a little under 5 per cent. in the first year and 4½ per cent. in the second year.

Following publication of the Report on 8th June, I at once invited representatives of the shipowners and the union to see me later that day. The Executive Committee of the National Union of Seamen rejected the Report in advance of the meeting with officials of the union and in my discussions with the officials they informed me that the Executive would consider nothing short of their full demands. The shipowners said that had the union been prepared to accept the Report they would have done so.

The Government's views were made clear in these discussions and in a statement the following day. We regard the proposals in the report as providing a fair settlement and we believe that acceptance of them by both sides of the industry would be in the interests of the seamen, the shipping industry and of the nation.

On 9th June, the Finance and General Purposes Committee of the T.U.C. discussed the position with the Executive Committee of the union and informed them that the T.U.C. could not recommend an extension of the strike, and regretted very much that the General Council could not at this stage assist.

There have since been further discussions between the T.U.C. and the union and contacts are continuing. I understand that the Finance and General Purposes Committee is meeting at 5 o'clock today.

I am keeping in close touch with all concerned.

Sir K. Joseph

Does the Minister agree that if overtime is not cut the Pearson settlement will cost about 7 per cent. and not 4½ per cent. in the second year? Do the Government intend, therefore, to make the overtime cut a condition of their acceptance of the Report, or to recognise that the Report will, in fact, cost 7 per cent. next year?

Finally, will the Government declare, particularly in the light of the Prime Minister's television broadcast, that further militancy should not, in their view, lead to any compromise over and beyond the Pearson proposals?

Mr. Gunter

On the last point, the Government's position has been made clear. We have said that the Pearson Report should be the basis of a fair settlement. It is a fair settlement, and should be accepted by the men, and that is where the Government stand.

On the question of overtime, I understand the argument that although the figure adduced is 4½ per cent., it could be 7 per cent. unless the negotiations were fruitful. We understand at least that. there is general consent that there should be no difficulty in cutting two hours by consent of both sides if negotiations take place, but I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that this is a Report submitted by a very eminent body. I would see no difficulty in containing the two hours if the men would only go back to work on what is a fair basis.

Mr. Mendelson

Would not my right hon. Friend agree that it is established custom and practice that proposals made by a court of inquiry need not be accepted in toto as made, but point in the direction where a settlement might be reached between the two sides concerned? With that in view, would not it be better not to press the N.U.S. to accept every part of that Report, but to get the two sides together with the hope of reaching an agreement in the direction pointed by the Report, but with some better terms, particularly on leave days, for the seamen?

Mr. Gunter

Practices have varied on courts of inquiry over the past years. Sometimes they have been accepted, and sometimes rejected, and sometimes have formed the basis of negotiation. I can only repeat to my hon. Friend that it is the feeling, the belief, of the Government that this is a fair and reasonable offer that has been made by Lord Pearson, and ought to be accepted.

Mr. Grimond

Is the Minister aware that many of the seamen's grievances arise out of the Merchant Shipping Act? These grievances have been known for many years. Can he give an undertaking that a new Merchant Shipping Act will be introduced? Bearing in mind the long period of discussions about these grievances, can he also give an undertaking that major grievances will be rectified in this present Session of Parliament? If that were done, the seamen might be in a more favourable frame of mind to consider the Pearson proposals as a possible basis for discussion.

Mr. Gunter

What the right hon. Gentleman said has been the basis of my argument with the seamen for four weeks. They were told six weeks ago that they could have a long-range inquiry into the iniquities which they allege operate in the Act. They have welcomed the inquiry on that basis. They wanted the inquiry to go into all the aspects of their conditions of service and the law as it operated in that sphere. There is no doubt in their minds—I can assure the right hon. Gentleman of this—that the second stage of this inquiry will proceed as rapidly as possible. It would be helpful if the seamen would go back to sea so that the court can get on with the job before it. There is no doubt in their minds that the Merchant Shipping Act must be amended. It must be altered. We must have a complete look at the law as it operates.

Mr. Heffer

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us on this side of the House feel that it is regrettable that the seamen did not accept this Report as a basis for negotiations? But, having said that, does not this make the position rather ridiculous as far as the employers are concerned, who declared openly that they could not move any further, yet immediately after the Report was published said that they could accept it? Does not this mean that a great responsibility for the continuance of the strike rests with the employers' attitude as well as with the N.U.S.?

Mr. Gunter

My hon. Friend knows that I pleaded for a long time that they should take the 3 per cent. on the basic rates and then proceed to an immediate review of the whole wage structure. I still think that that was the best advice that I could possibly have tendered. The owners were prepared to have that, although they were reluctant about the inquiry. They have now, not with any great enthusiasm, said that they will accept the Report in the interests of the nation as a whole. There are certain elements in the Report which go far beyond what the owners wanted to offer.

Mr. Ridsdale

Is the Minister aware, especially with regard to Harwich, that it is fear of intimidation and being black-legged which is preventing the seamen from going back to work? What has he in mind to prevent this intimidation and blacklegging? Why not introduce a secret ballot now? Never have so many been held to ransom for so long by so few.

Mr. Gunter

I have heard rumours this morning of intimidation, but I have had no official reports.

Mr. Winnick

Is my right hon. Friend aware that all those who want to see an end to this stike as soon as possible resent the awards given to certain elements in the community, such as doctors and judges, which have been well above the norm, and which make it more difficult for some of us in the Labour movement to persuade the seamen to go back to work on the offers which have been made so far?

Mr. Gunter

I appreciate the point made by my hon. Friend, but I would remind him that doctors had their awards split anyhow, and that is all I am asking the seamen to do.

Mr. Stratton Mills

While welcoming the fair and firm stand taken by the Minister in these negotiations, may I ask whether he feels that he has been assisted by the moral support given to the strikers by the 10s. a nob collection by many of his hon. Friends at an early stage in these negotiations?

Mr. Gunter

I get into enough trouble looking after my own conduct, without worrying too much about other people's.

Mr. Dan Jones

I invite the Minister to agree with me that—

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is beautifully put, but it is out of order.

Mr. Dan Jones

I accept your correction, Mr. Speaker. I will put it in another way. Will the Minister agree with me that, as this is a very delicate situation, and as this is now in the hands of very responsible and knowledgeable people, the least said in this House this afternoon the better?

Sir C. Osborne

While wishing the Minister good luck from both sides of the House in a very difficult task, may I ask whether he will give an assurance that the report in certain newspapers that the Government are considering giving a subsidy to fill this gap is untrue and will not be substantiated?

Mr. Gunter

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the statements in the Press are quite untrue. It has never been discussed, and it has never been put to me by any party.

Mr. Ashley

Would my right hon. Friend agree that the attacks on the union from right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite have not ameliorated, but have exacerbated, a very delicate situation? Is he further aware that, unless the seamen Accept the reasonable offer made by the inquiry, they will incur the hostility of their friends as well as of their enemies?

Sir Knox Cunningham

Will the Minister consult his Cabinet colleagues and arrange for certain restrictions on flying to be suspended during the present emergency, on freight traffic between Ulster and Great Britain, because this is proving a lifeline and is helping to prevent grave unemployment in Ulster?

Mr. Gunter

I will take note of that.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must protect the business of the House.