HC Deb 16 May 1966 vol 728 cc935-40
The Minister of Labour (Mr. R. J. Gunter)

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

The House will wish to know the background to the strike called by the National Union of Seamen which began at midnight.

The National Union of Seamen put forward a claim on 1st February for a 40-hour working week at sea with overtime payment for hours above 40 and an increase of 12s. 6d. per month in the basic rate for an A.B.

Following negotiations, the Shipping Federation made an offer on 6th April which would give effect to a 40-hour week in three stages and include in the first stage an increase of 12s. 6d. per month on efficient service pay and revised leave entitlements. The union representatives recommended this offer to their Executive Council. The Executive Council rejected the offer and decided to call a strike from 16th May. This decision was later confirmed by the annual conference of the union.

As the House knows, I have had meetings with representatives of the Shipping Federation and of the National Union of Seamen and I have also had discussions with the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry.

On 7th May I proposed to the representatives of the National Union of Seamen a full inquiry into the dispute itself and into the whole range of working conditions at sea. The Shipping Federation informed me that it would co-operate in an inquiry and was prepared to give an immediate increase in pay of 3 per cent.

The representatives of the National Union of Seamen reported my proposal to their Executive Council who rejected it. I met the full Executive Council on Wednesday, 11th May, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister met them on Friday, 13th May.

The Prime Minister and I stressed the very serious consequences of the decision to strike and urged the Executive to agree to the proposal for a full inquiry with an immediate increase of 3 per cent. We made plain that we realised the strength of their conviction about the justification for their claim and our readiness to help by a full investigation which could look searchingly into the whole range of working conditions at sea. That is still our position. The proposal for an inquiry is still open.

I have informed the General Secretary of the National Union of Seamen that the Government are ready to help to bring this grievous strike to an end as soon as there is a basis for doing so. The strike is bound to damage the nation as well as the shipping industry and the seamen themselves. I know that the House will join with me in hoping that it can be ended at the earliest possible moment.

In the meantime, the Government are taking, and will continue to take, all necessary measures to safeguard essential supplies.

Sir K. Joseph

Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to keep the House informed if the position changes?

Mr. Gunter

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Mendelson

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that while, of course, everybody would hope that a road to agreement will be found, there is a very strong feeling in the country, and among trade unionists in particular, that it is the Government's duty to try to influence the employers as well as the trade union side, that it takes two to make a compromise, that, therefore, the employers also ought to receive pressure, which they are not receiving from the Press which is conducting a one-sided campaign against the union, and that the Government should bear these sentiments in mind accordingly?

Mr. Gunter

The position as far as the employers are concerned is that they have made known where they stand on this. The whole of my discussions and negotiations with both sides have indicated the complexity of it. I do not wish to discuss or debate the merits or the demerits of the case at this time, but as to the offer that I made to the seamen for a full inquiry, which they have been seeking now for years, to deal if necessary in the short term with their dispute about pay and, in the long term, matters arising from the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, I cannot really see why a responsible body like the National Union of Seamen cannot take advantage of that offer and let the facts be known to the country.

Mr. Grimond

Can the Minister tell the House how long this inquiry might take? I understand that part of the seamen's case is based upon the delay in dealing with some of their grievances. Secondly, as some parts of the country such as that which I represent, namely, the islands, will be peculiarly and seriously affected by this strike, can the right hon. Gentleman say whether as far as the islands, and especially the outlying ones, are concerned, the emergency measures of which he spoke will be brought into force at once?

Mr. Gunter

The latter part of the right hon. Gentleman's supplementary question is very much in mind. We are giving particular attention to those points.

On the question of the length of an inquiry, one can find a precedent for the sort of inquiry that I have suggested. We had it in the docks, when Lord Devlin reported sharply and quickly on the immediate pay structure row that was going on. On the longer-term issue, of course it must take some time. It must inevitably do so because of the legal implications and all the rest of it, but the main issue here is the short-term one which I have pleaded with them to accept.

Mr. Atkinson

Can the Minister assure the House that if this inquiry takes place its findings will not be submitted to the Prices and Incomes Board?

Mr. Gunter

I really do not want to get involved in that sort of argument here. There are many ways of handling a situation like this. Let us get to the court of inquiry and let the facts be known. Do not let them be misunderstood. I have talked to the National Union of Seamen on this point. There is, of course, the argument that there are the exceptional cases. All I am asking the union to do is to demonstrate the fact that they are in that category.

Sir W. Robson Brown

While supporting the right hon. Gentleman on his general attitude for an inquiry, can we test the sincerity of the National Union of Seamen in this matter? Could they show their sympathy to the British public who intend to use cross-Channel steamers, steamers to the Channel Islands and to Northern Ireland and places of that kind, and not punish the public at this time of the year?

Mr. Gunter

That is a matter for the National Union of Seamen to consider.

Mr. Heffer

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that one of the basic problems as far as the seamen are concerned is the Merchant Shipping Act to which he referred? Is it not high time that there was a change in this Act? Can he say when this report will have been gone into? Will it be published so that the seamen can have some definite indication that there will be a change in this direction?

Mr. Gunter

I think I can say that the National Union of Seamen and the Shipping Federation, the owners, are at least at one on this. It is necessary to have this review. All that I have suggested—and they accept it—is that this cannot be done in the short term. It is a long-term review, but the nub of the problem is the short-term one.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Whatever the rights or wrongs in this case, will the Minister give an assurance that, if, unfortunately, the strike continues, forward arrangements are being made to recruit every conceivable aircraft either from the Air Force or from Central Africa which would be available for urgent supplies to this country?

Mr. Gunter

The Government have been considering and will continue to consider all aspects of what will be required.

Mr. Blenkinsop

Will my right hon. Friend agree that British seamen's conditions compare poorly with those in other countries in Europe, but, nevertheless, continue to press for the searching inquiry as the only real way of getting these conditions improved?

Mr. Gunter

It is not a question of my pressing. The offer is there. If Mr. Hogarth will give me a ring, in half an hour he can have his inquiry.

Mr. Crawley

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether it is true that a bank has advanced £250,000 to the National Seamen's Union to finance the strike? If it is true, how does that fall within the Chancellor's instruction about bank loans?

Mr. Gunter

I have only read in the newspapers that there has been a quarter of a million pounds—I think that that was the sum mentioned—but whence it comes I know not.

Mr. Bagier

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the discipline provisions in the 1894 Act are one of the biggest sources of trouble concerning the ordinary Merchant Navy man, and could he not, at least, in advance of an inquiry, state unequivocally that these provisions will be scrapped—will be looked at in the sort of advanced way in which we look at trade union provisions in these days?

Mr. Gunter

I am not in a position at this moment to say what ought to be scrapped or what ought not. I do not know. All I have told the seamen is that they can have an inquiry. Whether it be the fault of successive Governments or not does not matter; an inquiry has never taken place. But they have been pressing for years to have the whole thing reviewed, and I have said, "Yes, let us get on with the job". It is as clear as that.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

Has the right hon. Gentleman read reports that the National Union of Seamen is, allegedly, looking sympathetically at the very severe problem facing the Scottish Islanders? If so, has he made informal contact with the union to see precisely what this means?

Mr. Gunter

I understand that there is sympathy. That is all the union will tell me.

Mr. Orme

In spite of what my right hon. Friend has said about the dispute, there is a general feeling that the Government are taking one side in this issue. Would my right hon. Friend invite the shipping employers to some negotiations? It will take two sides to make an agreement.

Mr. Gunter

Yes, Sir. I wish to make perfectly clear to the House that there are two sides to this dispute. If the agreement of March, 1965, had been honoured in the spirit by many of the owners and masters, possibly this trouble would not have arisen. But we are in this mess. I have told the shipping owners what I think of them in unmistakable terms, because they must bear a measure of responsibility for what happened after March, 1965. All I am pleading with the seamen—and I repeat it—is, "Right; you have got the case. Come and present it to a court".

Mr. Michael Foot

If my right hon. Friend has told the ship owners what he thinks of them, would it not help in the dispute if he would make that public?

Mr. Gunter

In all the negotiations which go on at 8, St. James's Square, one of our greatest concerns is to keep them quiet rather than obtain publicity.

Mr. Richard

May I assure my right hon. Friend that, contrary to what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme), on these back benches at any rate there is considerable admiration for the way in which the Government have conducted this whole affair, but deep-seated and real regret that the National Union of Seamen has not seen fit to accept the Government's proposal for an inquiry?

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker