HC Deb 22 June 1966 vol 730 cc584-90

Message from Her Majesty brought up, and read by Mr. SPEAKER, as follows:

The Emergency Powers Act 1920, as amended by the Emergency Powers Act 1964, having enacted that if it appears to Her Majesty that there have occurred or are about to occur events of such a nature as to be calculated, by interfering with the supply and distribution of food, water, fuel or light, or with the means of locomotion, to deprive the community, or any substantial portion of the community, of the essentials of life, Her Majesty may, by Proclamation, declare that a state of emergency exists: and Her Majesty having on the 23rd day of May, 1966 made, in pursuance thereof, a Proclamation declaring that the stoppage of work among merchant seamen did, in Her opinion, constitute a state of emergency within the meaning of the said Act of 1920 as so amended, which Proclamation does not remain in force for more than one month: and the continuance of the said stoppage of work having, in Her Majesty's opinion, constituted such a state of emergency as aforesaid:

Her Majesty has deemed it proper, by Proclamation dated the 22nd day of June, 1966 and made in pursuance of the said Act of 1920, as so amended, to declare that a state of emergency exists.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a brief statement about the renewed Proclamation of emergency under Section 1 of the Emergency Powers Act, 1920.

Under the powers conferred by the Act fresh Regulations have been made which, with one exception, renew the Regulations made on 23rd May. That exception, Regulation 21, provides an additional power to direct British airlines to carry essential passengers and goods.

The House will be aware that under the Regulations the Government have today established Port Emergency Committees. The functions which these Committees will be authorised to exercise, on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport, will initially be confined to the power to regulate the admission of ships of any class or any specified ship to their ports. As I explained to the House on Monday, it has not been necessary as yet to use any of the other powers.

The House will, of course, have the opportunity early next week to debate the Proclamation of the state of emergency and to give its approval to the Regulations. I hope on that occasion, if I catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, to make a fuller statement on all aspects of the dispute and the action which is being taken.

Mr. Heath

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. He mentioned that the Port Emergency Committees will be given power to regulate the admission of ships. Can he state whether they will also have power to move ships, or is that to be dealt with in some other way?

Secondly, is the Prime Minister aware that the effect of the strike on our exports is now becoming much more marked, especially in regard to New Zealand and Australia, no ship having sailed to New-Zealand since 27th May and there being a very interrupted service to Australia?

Might I also ask whether the right hon. Gentleman, if he catches your eye next week, Mr. Speaker, will be able to give the House more information to justify his assertion that he doubted whether the executive of the N.U.S. was its own master?

The Prime Minister

On the first point, power exists to move ships. So far it has not been necessary, and it does not look immediately necessary, but we feel that now a state of congestion is arising which makes it necessary for the Port Emergency Committees to be set up ready to operate if a crisis occurs.

I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman about exports. The effect on our export trade in June, while not perhaps as great as might have been expected, has been serious in respect of one or two markets, and quite definitely Australia and New Zealand. My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade will be making a statement after Questions tomorrow about export shipments and about certain new arrangements to be introduced.

With regard to the third part of the right hon. Gentleman's supplementary question, in the fuller statement that I hope to make in the debate next week I shall deal fairly fully, as fully as is consistent with the other considerations that one has to have in mind, with the statement that I made on Monday and give the House many of the details which the House as a whole would, I think, want to have on that point.

Mr. Grimond

Will the Prime Minister confirm that no ship, either British or foreign has sailed to New Zealand since 27th May? Secondly, with regard to Regulation 21, can he say whether it gives the Government power to direct British airlines to carry essential passengers and goods on both internal and external services?

The Prime Minister

In answer to the second part of the right hon. Gentleman's supplementary question, this applies to both internal and external services. With regard to the shipment of goods to New Zealand, it is my impression that no ship, British or foreign, has gone since that date. Very few foreign ships enter into that trade.

Mr. Sydney Silverman

In view of the very serious statement which my right hon. Friend made on Monday and the unfortunate effect that it is likely to have in postponing a settlement of this unfortunate dispute, can he say how far his own Cabinet is master of its own decisions in this matter and how far it is being clandestinely, legitimately or illegitimately influenced by a group of politically-motivated bankers in Zurich——

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is very fascinating, but it is a little wide of the Proclamation on which the statement has been made.

The Prime Minister

If I might reply, Mr. Speaker, to that part of the supplementary question which was in order before you stopped my hon. Friend, the position is that the Cabinet, like any other Cabinet, is subject to the democratically elected House of Commons—[Laughter.]—democratically elected, I would remind hon. Gentlemen opposite, on 31st March. As to my statement about the executive, there are pressures by people who have not been elected, and I think that when I make my fuller statement to the House next week my hon. Friend and other hon. Members will see how fully justified was what I said the other day.

Several Hon. Members rose ——

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Burden.

Mr. Burden

Would the right hon. Gentleman not agree—

Mr. Sydney Silverman rose ——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I did not call the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Sydney Silverman) again. I called Mr. Burden.

Mr. Burden

Would the right hon. Gentleman not agree that any prolongation of the strike will also in the long-term considerably affect exports of wool textile goods, because it will delay the imports of the essential raw wool imports for them? Would it not also be possible that essential meat imports could be very seriously threatened?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. I said on Monday that I thought that this might have effects on exports going beyond the duration of the strike itself. The very fact mentioned by the Leader of the Opposition, the lack of sailings to New Zealand, is bound to have an effect on imports in some months' time from now. All these considerations point to the urgency of ending the strike, as we have strongly pressed the union to do, on the basis of the Report of the Pearson Committee. I cannot accept the view which has been expressed this afternoon that the statement that I made on Monday is likely to delay a settlement. It is cal- culated, I think, to have the effect of speeding a return to work.

Mr. Hector Hughes

Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that the declaration of an emergency now does not imply any diminution in his efforts to settle the strike on a basis of justice to the seamen?

The Prime Minister

Certainly it does not involve any such diminution. The House had a full report on Monday of the meetings that we had last week. This afternoon my right hon. Friend and I will be meeting the Finance and General Purposes Committee of the Trades Union Congress. We shall do everything in our power to get a reasonable, just, honourable and—I place increasing emphasis on this—speedy settlement.

Mr. Abse

Since the statement by my right hon. Friend would appear to indicate that a considerable number of boats will not be able to berth, can we have an assurance that the seamen held just outside our ports will not be detained on those boats in order that the disciplinary effect of the Merchant Shipping Act should continue, but that my right hon. Friend recognises that if they are not permitted to land it may very well be that it will be regarded as additional provocation, which will be of no help in the dispute?

The Prime Minister

Up to now there has not been the shortage of berths that we might have expected. There are signs that it is developing. As to the other point, it would be our hope that the seamen could be taken off the ships as quickly as possible. Of course, the Merchant Shipping Act has been one of the contributory factors over the years to the present state of affairs. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will ensure that nothing provocative is done to make the position any worse.

Mrs. Knight

Since the Prime Minister said that a crisis does not yet exist, may we ask how much further the situation has to develop before he will deem it to be a crisis situation?

The Prime Minister

It has been deemed an emergency now for over a month. I was referring specifically to the movement of ships in individual ports.

No crisis exists in individual ports in the sense that there is such a shortage of berths that ships cannot unload. It was in that sense that I said that there is no crisis. But there are signs of one developing. I do not know how quickly it will develop. If it does develop, we shall take whatever measures are necessary to clear the berths. I do not say that no national crisis exists. It is clear from the declaration of a state of emergency that we think it does.

Mr. Heffer

In view of the statement by Mr. Hogarth and Mr. George Woodcock this morning that the issues in the dispute are narrowing, will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that the Government will once again, as he promised in his statement on Monday, bring both sides of the industry together, and if an agreement is reached beyond the Pearson Report, will the Government give an assurance that it will not in any way be interfered with or vetoed by the Government?

The Prime Minister

This is very much a hypothetical question. It was put to me by some of the members of the executive of the National Union of Seamen last week, and I told them that it was hypothetical. Certainly we shall do everything in our power to bring the two sides together if one or both feel that it can lead to a settlement. We brought them together last Friday, but the results were not in any sense fruitful. With regard to the Pearson Report, I explained on Monday, and I confirm, that we think that the Pearson Report provides a real, honourable settlement in the circumstances and that any variation from it, as I explained on Monday, must be earned by guaranteed improvements in productivity which would reduce costs sufficiently to compensate for further concessions.

Several Hon. Members rose ——

Mr. Speaker

Order. We shall, I understand, be debating this on Tuesday.