HC Deb 29 January 1969 vol 776 cc1326-38
The Minister of Transport (Mr. Richard Marsh)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the reorganisation of the ports.

The conclusions the Government have reached and the policy which they propose to pursue are set out in a White Paper being published this afternoon. Copies are available in the Vote Office. This White Paper follows extensive consultations, based on a working document issued in July, 1967.

The rapid rate of technological and economic change which has affected the ports industry in recent years has greatly increased the urgency of the long-recognised need, emphasised, in particular, by the Rochdale Committee in 1962, for a properly-planned programme of port development and for the concentration of ownership and operation of port and related undertakings. The increased scope and rate of change demand an even greater degree of concentration of central control of policy than that visualised by the Rochdale Committee.

The Government have decided that a radical reorganisation is essential and that a National Ports Authority must be established to carry through the necessary changes and reshape the British ports industry.

The new Authority will have a complex task of fundamental importance to the nation's economy. Its first remit will be to take over the harbours now handling more than 5 million tons of goods a year. It is thus expected to take over London, the Mersey, Milford Haven, the Medway, Manchester, the Clyde, the Tees and Hartlepools, Bristol, the Tyne,

These harbours together handle over and the Forth. It will also take over the British Transport Docks Board harbours, of which the main ones are Hull, Southampton and the South Wales ports. 90 per cent. of our overseas trade and over 75 per cent. of our coastal trade, and the vast majority—over 95 per cent.—of our registered dock workers are employed in them. They include those harbours on the main estuaries at which, as the Rochdale Report said, development, except that to serve certain bulk cargoes, should be concentrated.

The Authority will be required to manage the harbours through subsidiary authorities, set up in accordance with a scheme of organisation which will require my approval. These authorities are expected to be based in the main on the principal estuaries, and they will be encouraged to plan the developments called for by the needs of the regions, working in close consultation with the regional economic planning councils.

The provisions proposed for the transfer of assets and for compensation, which is not expected to exceed £25 million, are set out in detail in the White Paper.

The new Authority will have a duty to see that efficient and economical port facilities and services are provided at the harbours for which it is responsible. For this purpose, the operation of the main common-user port services, such as stevedoring, is to be concentrated in the hands of the nationalised authorities. The compulsory take-over of these businesses will follow from schemes which the Authority must put forward as a first priority for my approval within one year of the vesting day. It will be able to put forward supplementary schemes subsequently if necessary. In the interim, I hope that existing authorities, and the new Authority, when it is formed, will acquire businesses voluntarily.

The new Authority will be required to establish effective machinery for negotiation and consultation with its employees on the lines of Section 137 of the Transport Act 1968. But, more than this, it will, when putting forward its scheme of organisation, be required to pay particular attention to the means of ensuring that workers' interests are adequately presented to it in its deliberations.

Furthermore, from the outset, the nationalised port authorities will be given a dominant voice on the employers' side in the machinery on employment matters affecting the industry as a whole; and the private port employers will be required by Statute to observe terms and conditions not less favourable than those observed by the nationalised authorities for similar work in the same area. In this way, the Authority will make the running for the whole port industry in the improvement of productivity and of conditions of employment.

Under the proposals in this White Paper the National Ports Authority will, as the first necessity, concentrate its resources on the management and development of the major harbours where the great bulk of our trade is handled. It will be armed with powers and duties enabling it to bring into its own hands, speedily and in an orderly and manageable way, the main port operations. And it will be able to extend its control to other harbours if this is shown to be desirable in the interests of the efficient and economical movement of our imports and exports.

Sir K. Joseph

Will the Minister now tell us his real intentions? Since most of the main ports are already in public ownership, why is he adopting nationalisation when the Rochdale Committee did not recommend it? Does he not realise that nationalisation will kill the last hope of competitive service to the public from our ports?

Does the right hon. Gentleman really intend to inflict this unnecessary disaster on the people, or is he bluffing the fanatics on his Left wing? Can the country take any comfort from his phrase that he only "expects" to take over the non-British Transport Dock Board major ports? Uncertainty has been damaging, so will he tell us the date by which he intends that the ports named will be nationalised? Finally, does the right hon. Gentleman expect the Bill to be a hybrid?

Mr. Marsh

This is a sad business. That one should have such an example of blind, doctrinaire prejudice from an otherwise reasonable man is, I think, cause for concern on both sides of the House. I know of no one—and I would not have thought that there was anyone until I heard the right hon. Gentleman—who is content with the way in which our docks are organised. There can be many arguments about how one tackles this problem. One of the greatest problems we face is that right hon. and hon. Members opposite did not tackle it and, therefore, we have come to the conclusion that what is needed here is a body which, from the centre, can provide a proper port system.

The right hon. Gentleman asked that I should name a date when the ports which I have named would come into public ownership. This will, of course, depend on how long it takes to get the Bill through the House; I am sure that, when hon. Members have had time to digest it, they will want to co-operate on it. It will certainly be our intention to take the earliest steps throughout the whole period of the discussions to ensure that all the preparations are made for vesting day to come into operation at the earliest possible opportunity.

Hon. Members


Mr. Marsh

It will be very early, probably earlier than hon. Gentlemen opposite realise. [HON. MEMBERS: "When?"] It is not for me to say how long it will take to convert hon. Gentlemen opposite to what is such a sensible proposition, but it will be done in the next Session of Parliament.

Hybridity is not a matter for me, but for the authorities of the House. I am in no doubt that the proposals which we are putting forward are fair to all concerned and that the Bill should, therefore, be a normal Bill.

Mr. Ellis

Is my right hon. Friend aware that before the Government took action there were 70 employers on the docks at Bristol and that some of them did not even possess a wheelbarrow or a hank of rope? Is he further aware that we warmly congratulate him on having introduced these proposals, along with the supreme fact that there must be one employer on a dock?

I assure my right hon. Friend that the vast majority of hon. Members on this side of the House will assist him in this enterprise and hope that the legislation will be brought forward as quickly as possible so that the country as a whole may derive all the benefits from it?

Mr. Speaker

Order. Hon. Members should ask questions, and not make statements, when questioning a Minister who has made a statement.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that if the Bill is to be a hybrid Bill he will stand no chance of getting it through next Session? Does he realise that such a Measure would be deplored on Clydeside, where a change of administration would hold up the development plans that are proceeding? How can he hope to carry out this operation in return for only the £25 million which has been mentioned?

Mr. Marsh

One must always have the public purse in mind. This is a fair basis of compensation. [Interruption.] Some hon. Gentlemen opposite have long been talking about a figure of £400 million, or some such extraordinary figure. I believe that about £25 million is the maximum.

To answer the hon. Gentleman's question about Scotland, I think that all the evidence shows that people within the industry, whether they be manual employees or management—and this can be said of most people outside the industry—have for a long time felt the need for a radical reorganisation of the dock industry. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that those who are employed in the industry are satisfied with it, he should try talking to some of them some time.

Mr. Roy Hughes

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that Labour hon. Members welcome his White Paper proposals? Can he say something about the regional structure and how the proposals particularly apply to ports in the Bristol Channel?

Mr. Marsh

In an earlier document there was a reference to three tiers of management. That proposal was virtually universally criticised. It would be a pity to have intermediate tiers of management. We shall, therefore, have the National Ports Authority at the centre and then largely estuarial groupings which will be almost the same as regional authorities, but there will be two levels instead of three. The effect of these proposals on particular areas will come within the first report of the Authority.

Dame Irene Ward

May we have an assurance that concerns on the Port of Tyne will not be made subservient to Tees-side, in view of the grave anxieties about the future development of the Port of Tyne and its eminent capacity to be the first port on the North-East Coast?

Mr. Marsh

One of the problems is that there is so little room for many first ports. We want an overall national ports plan. At present, it seems extraordinary that under any Government the only powers which the Minister has on port investment are purely negative—his power to refuse port expenditure under the Harbours Act, 1964 if it is in excess of £500,000. That is why we are now trying to get a positive ports scheme and it will be based on the port pattern which fits the interest of the nation as a whole. In recognition of this, the estuarial authorities will be in close touch with the regional interests.

Mr. Heffer

Is my right hon. Friend aware that port workers as a whole—the majority of people on Merseyside—will welcome his statement and White Paper? As we have obviously not had time to read the White Paper, would my right hon. Friend give us a little more information about the development of greater industrial democracy and democratic management from the point of view of the workers in the industry?

Mr. Marsh

We are asking the National Ports Authority to prepare its first report on organisation. The matter to which my hon. Friend refers will be one of the things which it will be specifi-ally asked to consider and on which to prepare proposals.

Mr. Fortescue

Is the Minister aware that there are two dock systems on Merseyside, one quite large, under the Merseyside Docks and Harbour Board, and the other, slightly smaller, in my constituency? Is he further aware that the Garston Docks are under the British Transport Docks Board, a nationalised organisation, and are very efficient? Does he appreciate that they run efficiently because the Docks Board has the sense to leave the local manager alone to complete? May we be assured that under his proposed reorganisation such sensible policies will be continued?

Mr. Marsh

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those comments. What I have said means that the relationship between the National Ports Authority and the subsidiaries will be something like the relationship between a holding company and its subsidiaries. The Authority will confine itself to issues of policy—such as pricing, research and development—while the management of these areas will be left to subsidiary management.

Dr. Ernest A. Davies

Is my right hon. Friend aware that those of us who have in mind all dock interests in our constituencies warmly welcome his statement? Does he appreciate that there will be certain matters which will need to be resolved, not only between one region of the country and another but, especially in the North-Western area, between one part of the region and another? Is he aware, for example, that this will arise in the case of Manchester and Mersey-side? Will he take an early opportunity to discuss this matter fully with, among others, the regional economic planning councils?

Mr. Marsh

I certainly hope, as I said, that the estuarial authorities will be in very close contact indeed with the regional planning councils. The purpose here is to get a good ports system. With the rapid technological change and vast investment that is taking place—I believe that there will be no argument in the House about this, if about nothing else—it is important to choose the areas to ensure that this vast investment is made in the interest of a good ports system.

Mr. Doughty

While very much regretting the right hon. Gentleman's statement, would he tell me, as honorary adviser to the Port of London Authority Police, what will be the position of the police under the new arrangements? Will they remain an independent body or will efforts be made to amalgamate them with other forces? If he is unable to answer me now will he write to me in the near future with the answer?

Mr. Marsh

I will write to the hon. and learned Gentleman with a substantive answer in the near future. Obviously, the vast bulk of employees will be needed by the same authority, but I will take the opportunity of writing to him about it.

Mr. Manuel

Is my right hon. Friend aware that all sensible people employed in the dock industry and in ports throughout the country will warmly welcome the White Paper? Is he further aware that many people who are complaining about chokes and bottlenecks in our ports, impeding the speedy passage of our exports, will now get some measure of comfort in the knowledge that the problem is now being tackled?

Mr. R. W. Elliott

Can the right hon. Gentleman give an indication as to the composition of the proposed estuarial authorities and a guarantee that local interests, and particularly business interests, will be represented?

Mr. Marsh

It is too early to answer that question at present. The intention is that the National Ports Authority will make nominations to these estuarial authorities and that this will be done in consultation with the Minister. I have no doubt that they will want to have local representatives on these bodies, but not necessarily in a representative capacity.

Mr. Ogden

When may we expect to debate the White Paper so that hon. Members may make proposals and comments? Will my right hon. Friend repeat the assurance which he gave earlier, that legislation will be introduced early next Session?

Mr. Marsh

I have my problems and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has his. Whether or not there is to be a debate is, of course, a matter for the usual channels. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend has heard what has been said on this score.

Mr. Bessell

Can the right hon. Gentleman assure us now that the new Authority will have proper worker and consumer representation? Is he aware of what will result if it does not? Is he also aware that this sweeping and unnecessary measure of nationalisation will do nothing whatever to resolve the main problem of the ports, which is that of getting our exports moving quickly and resolving worker-management disputes?

Mr. Marsh

People have been concerned about the need to reorganise the port industry for many years now. It is inconceivable that it would be put back into private enterprise. I do not think that anybody would argue that from either side of the House. It is essential that there should be a central planning body. I do not think that responsibility for an industry can be divorced from the ownership of that industry.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the question of consumers and workers in the industry. The question of worker-representation is a specific remit for the Board's report. It is important that the voice of the consumer should be heard and it would be my intention to set up an advisory council of consumers. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I take it that the right hon. Gentleman is aware that there is one now. I was not contemplating having the two running together. I will explain it more simply. I did not realise that the right hon. Gentleman had missed the point.

The hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell) asked about consumers. I started to say that it is our intention to set up an advisory council of consumers, who will have the ability to make representations except about certain dues and charges which are levied. They will be able to make those representations to the subsidiary authority, to the National Ports Authority, or to the Minister, who would have powers of direction.

Mr. McNamara

Is my right hon. Friend aware, as I hope he is, that his proposals will be particularly welcome in the industry, because of its bad industrial relations in the past? This is an opportunity to make a fresh start, which is particularly important in this economically vital industry at a period when it is undergoing rapid change. My right hon. Friend is to be congratulated on the step he is taking.

Mr. Marsh

I am overcome.

Mr. Heseltine

Does not the Minister agree that the greatest welcome for this proposal will come from those who work in ports with an annual turnover of less than 5 million tons? Will the power to extend the compulsory nationalisation to the ancillary purposes and activities in the docks lie in the discretion of the Minister or of the National Ports Authority, or will it be statutorily laid down?

Mr. Marsh

The National Ports Authority will have the power to make recommendations to the Minister for the compulsory acquisition of non-statutory undertakings. It will then be for the Minister to determine whether he accepts the Authority's recommendations.

Mr. Spriggs

How much money has been invested in the port industry, and with what results?

Mr. Marsh

It is difficult to define the actual results. Much of our port industry is very efficient. I think that the problems lie not so much in the managers of the industry as in the actual structure and control of the industry. Port investment has risen rapidly from about £13.8 million in 1963 to about £50 million this year, and this is one of the reasons.

Sir R. Cary

Will Manchester Ship Canal remain in the control of its Board and Manchester Corporation under the Minister's plans?

Mr. Marsh

The position of Manchester is a little complex, because there is a severance of the operation. The port undertaking of Manchester will be acquired under the Bill. The actual split is dealt with in the Annex to the White Paper.

Mr. Orme

I hope that the Minister will include the full public ownership not only of the Manchester Dock, but also of the Manchester Canal, because this is essential to the proper overall planning of the dock industry. I welcome the news about the Bill. Can my right hon. Friend say a little more about worker participation in the management of the industry, because this is essential in an industry which has been ridden with bad relations for a generation?

Mr. Marsh

I do not think that anybody would look with any degree of complacency on labour relations in the dock industry over a long period. It will be our intention, with a specific remit written into the Bill, to lay upon the National Ports Authority as one of its obligations the task of devising a method of associating workers more closely with the industry. There is a variety of ways of doing this, as my hon. Friend, who has a great deal of experience of these matters, is well aware.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

Will the Minister assure the House that the unique position of Milford Haven has been recognised by him and his Department, in that this is virtually an international oil terminal and must be treated as such? Does he agree that the present handling of the Haven under the Conservancy Board has been highly successful?

Mr. Marsh

I do not think that there is any dispute about that. Indeed, this operation is not based on the assumption of any reflection being cast on the particular port managements. I have never thought that the taking over of industries which were failing the nation was necessarily a first priority. We are taking over a number of industries here.

Milford Haven is being taken over because it is an important port. It is a very good deep-water harbour. It has many advantages. The position of the oil companies there is recognised. I think that the only fear they would have, to be quite blunt, would be that they might be milked for other users. That certainly would not be allowed to happen.

Mr. Delargy

My right hon. Friend has heard the Opposition—Liberal now, as well as Conservative—say that his scheme is disastrous and unnecessary. Will he confirm that those who are most directly concerned—the port workers—believe that his scheme is excellent and, indeed, necessary? Will he give the widest publicity to the fact that Liberals now as well as Tories are united in their opposition to what the dockers and the port workers themselves would like?

Mr. Marsh

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. I express surprise that my hon. Friend should find it unusual that hon. Members opposite are behind us in these matters. They always have been.

Mr. Dean

Is the Minister aware that the people of Bristol, who are proud of the port which they themselves own, in spite of the fact that he has vetoed modernisation schemes, will widely resent this latest example of Socialist ideology?

Mr. Marsh

Most of these ports are publicly owned already. We are reorganising them on the basis of a rational or central authority. I would like to know at some stage—not now, Mr. Speaker, because you probably would not like it—what the hon. Gentleman would suggest as an alternative to this other than going on as we have been doing for years.

Mr. Murray

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his proposals will be widely welcomed in the ports by the workers, if not by those who make profits there? What will happen to the very vital pilotage system under the new scheme?

Mr. Marsh

As the problem of pilotage is a difficult one, the Government have reached the conclusion that it should be dealt with in a separate Bill. Consultations will take place with those concerned on that basis.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must protect the business of the House.

Mr. Bessell

On a point of order. I heard the Minister say that legislation would be introduced during the next Session of Parliament. Is it in order to anticipate the contents of a Gracious Speech?

Mr. Speaker

Nothing which has happened this afternoon is out of order.

Mr. Ridsdale

On a point of order. Is it in order for you, Sir, not to call someone who represents one of the major ports of Britain?

Mr. Speaker

It is exceedingly difficult. All the hon. Gentlemen and hon. Ladies whom I did not call had a special reason for wanting to be called. I could not call everybody.

Sir Harmer Nicholls

On a point of order. My point is perhaps better put to you, Mr. Speaker, than to the Minister. At this stage, ought we not to be told whether the Bill will be treated as a hybrid? Clearly, it will be that. Is Parliamentary usage to be perverted by the Government's seeking to bluff it out and to treat the Bill as being otherwise?

Mr. Speaker

It is not at this moment that anyone will rule on whether the proposed Bill is a hybrid. That will come later.