HC Deb 23 May 1966 vol 729 cc34-42
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

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

As the House is aware, that Act, as amended by the Emergency Powers Act, 1964, provides that if at any time it appears to Her Majesty that events have occurred, or are about to occur, 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 part of the community, of the essentials of life, Her Majesty may, by Proclamation, declare that a state of emergency exists; and Section 2 provides that where a Proclamation of emergency has been made, Her Majesty may by Order in Council make Regulations for ensuring the essentials of life to the community.

In advising such action the Government are following the precedents of 1949 and 1955.

Regulations under Section 2 of the Act have been made this morning and are being laid this afternoon. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will be making a business statement tomorrow informing the House of the proposed changes in business which will enable the House both to debate the Government's action in establishing a state of emergency and, if the House see fit, to approve the Regulations.

The House will have an opportunity of studying the Regulations when they have been laid but, in addition to dealing with control of port traffic and other aspects of work in the ports, they will deal with certain aspects of internal transport and the maintenance of other public services and essential supplies.

Perhaps I should inform the House that power is being taken also to make orders prescribing the maximum prices for foodstuffs. This power—and this is true equally of others which are made available under the Regulations—is at this stage a reserve power only, and the Government do not consider that the time has been reached when any orders under the Regulations are immediately necessary and no use will be made of them unless the need arises. It was, however, thought essential that the powers should be taken and that Parliament should be given adequate time to debate them. The Government will not, of course, hesitate to make use of the powers should this become necessary.

We are proclaiming an emergency because the Government must protect the vital interests of the nation. This is not action against the National Union of Seamen. We want the dispute between the union and the shipowners to be settled as soon as practicable, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour has made clear his willingness to see representatives of both sides whenever it is felt that he can help them to end this dispute. He has, in fact, been meeting both sides this afternoon.

As was made clear to the Executive Committee of the National Union of Seamen when my right hon. Friend and I met them 10 days ago, the Government are well aware that one of the major contributory factors in this situation has been the failure over the years to deal with an out-dated and archaic system of regulation of the terms and conditions of seagoing employment, particularly, of course, the issues raised by the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894. But whatever the outcome of the present dispute it is the Government's intention to arrange for a powerful, thorough and independent inquiry into all the complex issues affecting the terms and conditions of seagoing employment.

Mr. Heath

The declaration of the state of emergency, and the statement which the Prime Minister has just made, emphasise the extreme seriousness of the present situation. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the whole House will agree with what he said, namely, that we want to see an honourable settlement of this dispute at the earliest practicable moment?

In the meantime, may I tell the right hon. Gentleman that on this side of the House we believe that the statement that he has made about the Proclamation is justifiable in the circumstances? We shall wish to consider the Regulations when they are published and then, we understand, we shall have an opportunity of debating them later in the week.

The Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said. We understand that he and his colleagues, and, indeed, the whole House, will wish to study the Regulations which are to be laid today, for the debate which will take place later this week.

Mr. Grimond

Is the Prime Minister aware that no one will deny the damage done by the strike? Is he also aware that, in all fairness, I must put it to him that the National Union of Seamen has itself shown a certain understanding of the hardship caused? I was informed by the union this morning that it is allowing ships to sail to my constituency manned by members of the union.

Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore at once appoint an independent inquiry to find out the facts behind this strike—for instance, how far wages paid to British seamen lag behind those paid to seamen of other countries, how far owners have fulfilled the spirit of the 1965 agreement over weekend working, and how far at any rate some packets of seamen seem to have been lagging far behind in the standard of wages paid?

Most people agree that we cannot afford to allow a low-wage shipping industry in this country when the rest of the world is moving on to better things?

The Prime Minister

I agree with a lot of what the right hon. Gentleman has said—and certainly about the consequential effects of this very grave situation. The National Union of Seamen and the local strike committees have shown great understanding of the problems of individual areas and have made satisfactory arrangements to limit the damaging effects in those areas.

The reason for the Proclamation was that the main volume of imports into this country—not only food, but also raw materials—is becoming progressively and more damagingly disrupted. This is bound to affect employment fairly quickly, and is also affecting our export trade.

The question of the causes of the dispute which has arisen is an extremely complex issue. As I said last week, the Merchant Shipping Act was passed three years before Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, and it is long overdue for amendment. There has been the failure of the union over many years adequately to deal with the frustrations, grievances and legitimate claims of the seamen. There was also the event last year, to which I referred in my broadcast, namely, the stupid provocation by certain shipowners after the 1965 agreement.

Having said all that, however, I must stress that it is the duty of the Government, if a strike of this magnitude and damage occurs, to take the measures that we have taken this afternoon.

Mr. Shinwell

If as I understand from my right hon. Friend that there is an intention to meet both sides in the course of the day, will he for the moment ignore the proposal for a fact-finding inquiry, because that is bound to be protracted? Anyone who knows anything about the nature and causes of the dispute must realise that. What is wanted is to bring both sides together and try to effect a compromise.

It is obvious from what the General Secretary of the National Seamen's Union said that he is prepared for a compromise. This must be brought home to the Chairman of the Shipping Federation. Will he understand that the seamen have some justification, even if it is not possible for the shipowners to concede the whole claim because of some economic and financial difficulties in some parts of the shipping industry and the country, and that at any rate they would be prepared to meet some part of the claim? The Government should direct their attention to a compromise of that kind.

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend is meeting both sides this afternoon. So far as I am aware—I have not had a report from him—he is still meeting the National Union of Seamen at the moment, unless that meeting has broken up. The question of the timing of an inquiry into these long-term problems, which, more than anything else, have brought about this situation, is a matter for discussion by both sides. We, of course, are prepared to start an inquiry as soon as possible, but we want to be sure that it will be useful.

When my right hon. Friend and I met the executive 10 days ago the proposal we then made, in addition to an interim settlement on top of last year's settlement, was that the inquiry, when set up, should address itself immediately and with great urgency to the outstanding problems between the two sides and only after that address itself to the much more difficult and complicated problems, which inevitably would take many months, of the Merchant Shipping Act and other questions. But we offered facilities for an immediate and urgent inquiry into the dispute which has led to this stoppage.

Mr. Bidwell

May I ask whether the part of the Prime Minister's statement which related to the offers of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour to meet both sides of the dispute includes an effort to bring the two sides together at the earliest opportunity?

The Prime Minister

I have just had a note saying that the talks are still going on at this moment. Of course, if a basis exists for a settlement the two sides can be brought together, but I must give my own impression, having spent two hours in these discussions 10 days ago. I believe that the accumulated difficulties, grievances, frustrations—and we must say this plainly—the failures of the union in past years to deal with these frustrations, and of the shipowners as well, were such that I believe that if we had offered anything at all 10 days ago we would not have averted this strike and crisis. If agreement can be reached on satisfactory terms there will be nothing to prevent a return to work almost immediately.

Sir Knox Cunningham

Will the Prime Minister bear in mind, in exercising these special powers, the particular difficulties due to the sea passage of Ulster? Is he aware that if the strike continues for any length of time there will be a very rapid increase in unemployment there?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. This is well understood and taken into account. The same is true, of course, of many other areas which are dependent on sea transport, including many islands. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) said, I believe that some understanding has been shown by the Seamen's Union of the difficulties of some of the islands in obtaining essential supplies.

The real problem for Ulster and for Britain as a whole is not merely transport between ourselves and other parts of this country, but the arrival of raw materials and foodstuffs from abroad and the shipping of exports which are being produced in this country.

Mr. Jeger

Is my right hon. Friend aware that food prices are already going up, and have done so during the past weekend, on the excuse of the increased cost of alternative means of transport? Would not my right hon. Friend therefore consider freezing food prices at a very early date?

The Prime Minister

I am aware that there are always some people within our community who are prepared to exploit any situation that develops. Indeed, before the strike began there were some traders who put up prices when there had been no difficulties or disruption of supplies and no increase in costs. But, as a result of what I believe was largely spontaneous public reaction to this kind of behaviour and of meetings which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had with some of the food trades, I believe that a much greater sense of responsibility has been shown.

Certainly, the latest facts and figures which I have seen suggest that whatever flurry there was in food prices a week ago when it was not justified the situation has been held for the last few days. Of course, if this no longer holds, and there is a shortage of food and these problems arise, we shall be prepared to use the powers taken in the Regulations which have been tabled today.

Mr. Peyton

The Prime Minister has treated this matter as if it were simply a dispute between the shipowners and the seamen. Will he say now whether or not he adheres to what he previously said about the incomes and wages policy?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. I made it very plain in my broadcast last Monday. There is a very serious problem here, as there would be in the case of any other union. If wages were to rise by an undue amount, particularly after an increase last year, it would produce such a fatal breach in the prices and incomes policy that we would not be able to counter inflation at home, to maintain our exports, or indeed to maintain full employment. I said that last week and it must be clearly emphasised.

The natural sympathy of, I believe, hon. members on both sides of the House for the seamen, and the way in which their grievances have not been dealt with in past years, cannot derogate from this fact. This is one reason why, in this case, as in so many others, it is becoming increasingly important to link increases in pay with increases in productivity and with the number of men employed on a particular job.

Mr. Heffer

Is my right hon. Friend aware that if troops are put in the docks, or there is an extension of the use of the Royal Navy, this can lead to a very serious crisis for the rest of the dock workers? Will he not consider that under the emergency powers which are to be brought in it would be far better if the Government took over on a temporary basis the running of the shipping industry with a temporary subsidy until the whole matter could be settled?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend, I recall, is a fellow Merseyside Member of Parliament who played a notable part in the shipping dispute six years ago when the Merchant Shipping Act was one of the serious questions. Some of these things are not spontaneous, but deliberately organised by people of political views not represented in this House. If there were an attempt to spread this difficulty and trouble to other areas of the economy, I know that he would be one of the first to use his very notable influence to prevent this happening. [Laughter.] This is not a matter for tittering by hon. Members opposite.

I happen to know what my hon. Friend did in the very difficult situation of the 1960 dispute. I am absolutely confident— I say it again—that he and everyone else who has influence in shipping and port areas will do their utmost to see that no one is allowed to cash in in a political sense on the difficulties which have arisen.

When my hon. Friend suggests that this matter should be bridged by a temporary subsidy, I ask him to consider that this is not the right way to settle this problem. There are grave difficulties here, as we all recognise. Our industrial history has been marked, and indeed fouled, by attempts to deal with problems of this kind by a subsidy. I do not believe that it would be appropriate in this situation. A lot of patience will be needed on both sides and a lot of imagination on one side of the industry which has not been notable for imagination in the past.

Sir A. V. Harvey

While appreciating that the less said at this stage the better, may I ask the Prime Minister, nevertheless, whether he is aware that certain sections of the public are deeply concerned about the whole situation? Will he undertake, either through himself or through other Ministers, to keep the Mouse and the country fully informed on vital matters which affect the public as a whole?

The Prime Minister

I believe that not just certain sections of the public, but all sections, are deeply concerned about this situation and about what has led up to it, a bout the present problem and about what it may mean for this country, as well as for the industry concerned.

My right hon. Friends and I will keep the House informed at every point of the situation, but I am sure that the hon. and gallant Gentleman will agree that we were right to make a Proclamation today so as to give the House a chance adequately to debate it and the Regulations before we rise at the end of the week.

Mr. Manuel

Is my right hon. Friend aware that to create the right atmosphere for a settlement he should avoid the Government's using naval vessels indiscriminately, especially when the National Union of Seamen has promised to provide essential supplies to the Western Isles and the Orkneys and, this week, is doing so?

The Prime Minister

There will not be indiscriminate use of anything. This is a highly delicate situation and we shall be extremely careful about how it is handled.

While I have joined the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) in paying tribute to the Seamen's Union for the way in which it is moving the relatively small amount of supplies needed to go from the mainland to areas such as those which he and my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel) mentioned, the basic problem with which we are presented is not that of sending a couple of shiploads of supplies to the Western Isles or to the Shetlands. The main problem is the fact that far larger quantities of essential goods will not be coming to these islands at all. It is a problem of imports into, and exports out of, Britain much more than a problem of distribution within Britain.

We shall have to take whatever action is needed, whatever it may be, to minimise the damage to Britain of this dispute. We did not seek this dispute. I believe that the National Union of Seamen understood fully what the economic effects would be—I have made it very clear to the union. In its mind it did not regard the dispute as an attack on the Government, an attack on the State, an attack on the community. Nevertheless, these are the inevitable consequences of a dispute of this kind in such an industry, and that being so, the Government have their responsibility and will have to take that responsibility, and will not hesitate to do so.

Several Hon.Members rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is a grave matter, but we must move on, in the interests of the business of the House.