HC Deb 26 May 1966 vol 729 cc733-6
The Minister of Labour (Mr. R. J. Gunter)

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

I have appointed a Court of Inquiry under the Industrial Courts Act, 1919, with the following terms of reference:

To inquire into—

First, the immediate causes and circumstances of the present dispute between the shipowners and members of the National Union of Seamen;

Secondly, terms and conditions of service of seamen, taking into account the national interest, technological change and the need for an efficient and competitive shipping industry;

Thirdly, relations between ship. owners, officers and seamen;

Fourthly, the law, including the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, relevant to points 2 and 3 that I have made.

Lord Pearson has agreed to serve as Chairman of the Inquiry. Other members are Mr. Hugh Clegg of Nuffielcl College, Oxford; Mr. Stephen Brown, President Elect of the Confederation of British Industry; Mr. J. O'Hagan, General Secretary of the National Union of Blastfurnacemen and Chairman of the General Council of the T.U.C.

The court will begin its work as soon as possible, and both the employers and the union have promised full cooperation. I have discussed with Lord Pearson the possibility of the court making an interim report dealing with the immediate issues in the dispute, and he will be considering this possibility with his colleagues as a matter of urgency.

As the House knows, the Government's intention that there should be a full and searching inquiry into all the issues affecting this dispute has repeatedy been made clear to both sides. The appointment of this Court of Inquiry is a further demonstration of the Government's determination to help the two sides to reach a prompt and equitable solution of their differences and so put an end to the serious damage which the strike is causing.

Sir K. Joseph

When, approximately, at the earliest does the Minister hope that a report, interim or otherwise, can be expected?

Mr. Gunter

It is very difficult to speculate about a Court of Inquiry, because so much is in its hands, but we are thinking in terms of a dozen or 14 days for a prompt report on the issue that is of immediate concern. The remainder of the inquiry will take much longer, because it is a legal matter.

Mr. Shinwell

My right hon. Friend will understand that everybody in the House will welcome an inquiry of a comprehensive character, in particular since it will include an examination of the Merchant Shipping Act and possible amendments. But does he realise that the setting up of the inquiry may have the effect of preventing a possible compromise arrangement between the Seamen's Union and the Shipping Federation? Can he use his influence with Lord Pearson, the Chairman of the Committee of Inquiry—I do not know how it may be done—to ensure that something is done in connection with the immediate dispute, perhaps during the course of the next few days?

Mr. Gunter

I take my right hon. Friend's point. Lord Pearson will be meeting both sides concerned in the dispute in the early part of next week, when, I think, he will be discussing with them, before the formal opening of the inquiry, the point raised by my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Hooson

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether it is the intention of the Government to be represented at this inquiry and whether the representatives of the Government there will put forward their own proposals for the amendment of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894? Is there any reason why there should not be the introduction of a statutory working week by the amendment of this Act? Have the Government any such proposals to put to the inquiry?

Mr. Gunter

I have no doubt that the Board of Trade, in particular, will have its point of view on these issues and will make its submissions. If I understood the first part of the hon. and learned Gentleman's supplementary question, about the Government's interests being represented, he will note that under the terms of reference the national interest will be taken into account.

Mr. Helfer

Can my right hon. Friend say whether either side—seamen or employers—was prepared to accept anything which came out of this inquiry, especially in relation to the immediate settlement of the present dispute? By that I mean, was some offer being made by the employers?

Mr. Gunter

The difficulty about what my hon. Friend asks is that it really amounts to a question whether both sides have pledged themselves to accept what comes out of the inquiry. I could not demand of either side a promise that it would accept whatever came out from the inquiry. But I met both the employers and the trade union at midday today and I am sure that, with the establishment of a court of this character and of such a high level, the recommendations flowing from it will inevitably have the gravest consideration by both sides.

Captain Elliot

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that millions of people who are neither seamen or shipowners are affected by the strike and its possible settlement? Will the body that he has appointed take their interest into account?

Mr. Gunter

I should imagine that a body of this character, with the type of persons sitting on it, would certainly have the interests of the whole community at heart.

Mr. Rankin

In view of the welcome statement which my right hon. Friend has just made, will it be necessary for the Government to proceed with the acquisition of emergency powers?

Mr. Gunter

Yes, but that is not a question for me.

Sir C. Osborne

Will the inquiry be held in public?

Mr. Gunter

That is a matter for the inquiry itself to decide.

Mr. Atkinson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the National Union of Seamen is quite willing to co-operate and to give evidence to this inquiry? On that basis, can he assure the House that the inquiry will be quite free to reach its own conclusions on wages and conditions, and that when these conclusions are reached they will not be subject to any findings by the Prices and Incomes Board?

Mr. Gunter indicated assent.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move on.