HC Deb 13 November 1967 vol 754 cc32-5
The Minister of Labour (Mr. R. J. Gunter)

I will, with permission, make a statement on the position in the London docks.

Compared with the situation when I reported to the House on 9th November, there has been an improvement at West India and Millwall docks, where no ships are now idle. The strike continues unchanged in the Royal Group.

At a meeting this morning at West India and Millwall docks, a resolution in favour of continuing the strike presented on behalf of the unofficial leaders was declared carried after several votes had been taken.

Following this, however, a resolution for a return to work presented on behalf of the Transport and General Workers' Union and the National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers was carried by a substantial majority. A further 175 men have presented themselves for work.

At the meeting in the Royal Group, I understand that the union speakers were subjected to constant interruptions and that a resolution for a continuation of the strike presented on behalf of the unofficial leaders was carried. Twenty-two ships are now idle.

The remainder of the Port of London, which accounts for more than three-quarters of the labour force, is working normally, and over the port as a whole 179 ships are being worked.

Following the joint statement issued to their members at the end of last week, I understand that the two unions are continuing their efforts to explain to the men on strike their proposals for dealing through the negotiating machinery with any difficulties which arise in the application of the agreed arrangements for temporary transfers. I would emphasise that the agreed arrangements are operating satisfactorily in other areas of the port.

In view of the protracted nature of the strike and the damage to trade which it is causing, I have invited representatives of the employers and of the unions to discuss with me what further efforts they are making to see that the situation is properly understood by the men.

Mr. Carr

While I am sure that the House welcomes the news of an improvement in the West India and Millwall docks, may I ask the right hon. Gentle-man whether he is aware of the great and growing concern in the country about the effect of the continued deadlock in the Royal Group? We welcome the discussions he is to initiate. When does he hope that these will take place? Will he undertake that, when they have taken place, he will as quickly as possible report further to the House?

Mr. Gunter

I am hoping that these discussions will take place tomorrow and I will bear in mind what the right hon. Gentleman asks.

Mr. Lubbock

Would the right hon. Gentleman consider putting the facts before the men still on strike by means of a television broadcast?

Mr. Gunter

Not at this moment.

Sir C. Taylor

Can the right hon. Gentleman give an estimate of the total number of exports held up at the Royal Group during the strike?

Mr. Gunter

Not without notice.

Mr. K. Lewis

Will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear in the discussions that, should the men go back to work, every opportunity will be taken between now and Christmas, which would be the vital period, to see that whatever grievances they have are thoroughly dealt with and that, if necessary, the Minister himself will take a hand in this?

Mr. Gunter

I do not know that I want to take a hand in it. The negotiating machinery is there. The men know it is there and in many cases, in other parts of the London docks and in other docks throughout the country, they have used this machinery to deal with the inevitable anomalies which must arise from so revolutionary a scheme as decasualisation. The machinery is there and should be used and I shall seek an assurance from the unions that there will be no delay in operating any part of that machinery.

Mr. Peyton

Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that the time is coming when this country has been vulnerable for too long to plots and agitations by a few who have misled the men and that a trading nation like Britain cannot indefinitely continue to sustain blows to its lifeblood like this?

Mr. Gunter

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. This country is in no position to afford the sort of exercise going on in the London docks. This is one of the reasons why I am anxious to get my hands on the Royal Commission's report, to see how we can deal with it. But at present let us understand one thing very clearly: this has nothing to do with any agreement I have signed. This is an agreement freely entered into by the Transport and General Workers' Union and the Stevedores Union, and they seem unable to explain it to their members satisfactorily.

Mr. English

In his, next statement, will my right hon. Friend give comparative figures of docks strikes in other shipping countries and say whether they were affected in their exports to the extent that it is claimed the London docks strike is affecting our exports?

Mr. Gunter

I would imagine that among our industrial competitors one would find more days lost through docks strikes than in this country. But that is not the point. The disturbing thing about the docks strike—and, indeed, about many elements of British industry—is that it is an unofficial stoppage.

Perhaps I may give an example. When Mr. Walter Reuther brings his men out on strike in the American motor car industry, they have had at least three years' peace. No one has broken a contract. When he takes them back, there is another three years in which they can plan and wait. The dilemma of British industry is continuous interruption of production lines. No one knows when it will strike next.