HC Deb 26 October 1967 vol 751 cc1889-92
Mr. Robert Carr

(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Labour whether he will make a statement regarding the position in the Liverpool and London docks.

The Minister of Labour (Mr. R. J. Gunter)

There has been a virtually complete strike of dockers in Liverpool and Birkenhead since 18th September. In London, the Royal Group, West India and Millwall docks, and to a lesser extent London and St. Katharine's docks, have also been affected. These strikes, which are unofficial, now involve about 16,000 men, and have caused serious interference with trade, in particular with exports.

At Liverpool, the local system of pay, and, in particular, the arrangements for piece work, have been the major issue, and negotiations on this were in progress before the strike. I therefore appointed Mr. Jack Scamp, on 10th October, to inquire into the locally determined aspects of the system of payment and earnings opportunities. I expect to receive his report in the very near future.

Mr. Scamp, at my suggestion, has also had extensive discussions over the period 19th October to 21st October with representatives of employers and workers in Liverpool in order to seek, in advance of his report, a basis for a resumption of work. As a result of these discussions, an agreement was reached between the employers and the union who have made strenuous efforts to explain to their members the advantages which it provides.

I very much regret that despite this a meeting of the men decided yesterday to continue the strike.

I have today received a letter from Mr. Scamp dealing with these negotiations. In it, he makes clear his view that the agreement reached is the best way to meet criticisms of the present system of pay- ment in the port expressed at his inquiry, pending a more detailed review and that it provides an acceptable basis for a return to work. I fully support his view and urge the men to reconsider their position.

In London, the main issue—the procedure for the recall to their permanent employer of men on temporary transfer—was considered before 18th September and is dealt with in local agreements reached by the unions and employers as part of the decasualisation arrangements, which were then introduced. I am satisfied that any difficulties arising out of the application of these arrangements can be taken up by the union through the industry's negotiating machinery, and I urge the men to pursue any grievances they may have in this way.

Mr. Carr

May I strongly endorse—and I am sure that in doing so I speak on behalf of the whole House—the Minister's call to the strikers at the docks to return to work immediately? I do not wish to press the Minister for answers to questions which will in any way embarrass the situation, but, nevertheless, Parliament should be the sounding board for public opinion.

May I, therefore, ask him whether, in the national interest, he can now tell us when the Government would regard it as necessary to take any emergency action to support the national interest, and whether he thinks that it might be helpful to make a statement on this matter before, rather than after, the next mass meeting of the dockers, which I believe will be tomorrow, so that they are aware of the view of the Government and of the House?

Mr. Gunter

The right hon. Gentle-put his finger on the problem by talking about the difficulties of timing in this matter. What the right hon. Gentleman has been talking about is bound to be considered by any Government, but I put it to him that the situation would be fraught with danger if we made any statement now.

A mass meeting is to take place on Friday. I believe that it is the desire of thousands of Liverpool dockers to go back to work. Every effort is being made today to explain exactly what the proposals are. Yesterday, there seemed to be considerable confusion about what they meant. The T.G.W.U. is making every effort to see that the men fully understand what it is all about. A decision will be taken at the mass meeting on Friday. I hope that it will be successful, but I repeat that it would be dangerous to make a statement at this time.

Mr. Barnett

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the very serious problem facing the Lancashire textile industry? If, as we hope, the strike is settled soon, will be give an assurance that he will do all in his power to expedite the export and import of raw cotton immediately after perishable goods?

Mr. Gunter

I am fully aware of the seriousness of the position. Particular representations have been made to me by textile manufacturers, and I think that I can assure my hon. Friend that that priority will be given.

Mr. Heller

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the statement he has made will be well received—that there is a general recognition of the real grievances which the Liverpool dockers have had and still have? Will he tell the House whether the question of the interpretation of the 2s. bonus money, which could lead to certain sections of the dockers receiving only 1s., in relation to the stowback, is being dealt with? If it is dealt with quickly it can help a return to work.

Mr. Gunter

I can assure my hon. Friend that that is one of the points that the Transport and General Workers' Union today is making considerable efforts to explain.

Dr. Winstanley

The Minister has referred to the agreement between the employers and the union. Does not he agree that what is needed now is a glimmer of agreement between the trade union and those whom it is alleged to represent? Does he agree, further, that the cause of this dispute has been not so much Communist agitation as the failure of the trade union leaders to recognise the true nature of the difficulties facing the men?

Mr. Gunter

There is a substantial amount of truth in what the hon. Member says. There has been a failure of communication, but I am not happy to reflect on that today.

Mr. Wyatt

I accept what the Minister says about the difficulty of taking emergency measures in Liverpool, but can he say how long the Government will wait before they take some sort of emergency measures in London docks, because of the enormous strain now being placed upon our balance of payments by the failure to load exports?

Mr. Gunter

Again, I can only repeat that this is a matter of judgment and I am not senior enough in the hierarchy to decide when a proclamation should be made, or anything of this character. The only advice that I can give the House at this time is not to follow the advice of my hon. Friend. We are not thinking of doing that in London at present. If we did, the House might be faced with a far more substantial crisis.

Mr. Fortescue

In view of the Minister's statement about a Communist plan for our winter of discontent, will he make available to the House the names and, if necessary, the political affiliations, of the members of the unofficial strike committee in Liverpool?

Mr. Gunter

I have been wondering during the last week whether I am the most worldly-wise man in this country or whether I am the most innocent. I do not know. What I said in my speech I thought was stating the obvious. I was brought up in a Welsh coalfield. I know what the Communist Party exists for. I never said that these men were doing anything illegal. They are there to plot. If we are not careful the boys will be advocating a redundancy payment for the industrial officer of the Communist Party, and he does not qualify under my Fund.