HC Deb 02 July 1969 vol 786 cc429-32
Mr. Ian Lloyd (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity whether she will make a statement on the situation in the Southampton and Liverpool Docks.

The First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity (Mrs. Barbara Castle)

At Southampton, the entire registered dock labour force of about 2,000 men have been on unofficial strike since midday last Thursday over a claim, under negotiation between the Transport and General Workers' Union and the employers concerned, for an earnings guarantee for working certain types of ship. This action is against the advice of the shop stewards and the union.

At Liverpool and Birkenhead, virtually all the registered dock workers, about 11,000 men, have been on unofficial strike since midday yesterday over a claim that handling of goods at the container base at Aintree which opened on 16th June should be done by registered dock workers and covered by the Dock Labour Scheme, and not as provided in the national agreement of May, 1968, between the Container Base Federation and the Transport and General Workers' Union.

Negotiations on the position at the Aintree base and the similar base at Orsett, near Tilbury, are taking place between the Federation and the Transport and General Workers' Union with a view to amending the national agreement. I understand that they will be meeting again this afternoon at Transport House.

Officials of my Department had talks yesterday with both sides. We have informed the T.U.C. of the situation and are keeping in close touch with developments.

Mr. Lloyd

Is the First Secretary aware that, as a result of the strike, two further ships have been diverted to Belgium to unload? Is she further aware that every feature of this strike emphasises the Government's disastrous retreat from authority, and completely vitiates any undertaking which the Chancellor of the Exchequer might give to the International Monetary Fund? What steps is the right hon. Lady taking to prevent this strike spreading to a national dock strike?

Mrs. Castle

I am as concerned as anyone about the consequences of this strike, but I cannot for a moment accept the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question. We have always envisaged that in the first stage of any dispute, however serious, we should use conciliation and the good offices of the union to bring the dispute to an end. There will be a meeting of both sides within the hour. I suggest that we do not ask in this House provocative questions that might jeopardise the outcome.

Mr. Heffer

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some hon. Members on this side, probably most of them, feel that the dockers have an extremely good case which needs to be carefully looked at? Is she aware that the whole problem of containerisation and the manning of depots is not confined to Britain, and that the longshoremen's strike in the United States of America was largely concerned with this factor?

Is my right hon. Friend also aware that most of us who are connected with the docks feel that it is far better at the moment to leave the situation in the capable hands of Mr. Jack Jones and the executive of the Transport and General Workers' Union than for ignorant statements to come from hon. Members who know very little about the industry?

Mrs. Castle

I accept, as my hon. Friend says, that there have been difficulties in other countries about the introduction of containerisation. It is seen by dockers as a threat to their survival, and one has every sympathy with their anxieties, but, of course, we are all anxious to avoid in this country the sort of labour troubles elsewhere, to which he has referred.

I repeat that the union is using its best endeavours in this matter, and I think that we should encourage it to do so.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

Are the Ministry conciliation officers playing any part in the Southampton strike?

Mrs. Castle

We have kept in touch with the situation in the normal way.

Dr. Winstanley

Does the right hon. Lady agree that the occurrence of these two potentially damaging strikes is an indication that the powers of the trade unions as at present constituted are not too great, but too small, and that there is now an urgent need for constructive legislation on the whole issue and on the causes of industrial strife?

Mrs. Castle

It is a little early to make sweeping generalisations about either of these two strikes, The Liverpool strike is barely more than 24 hours old. The union is in there using its endeavours. Mr. Jack Jones saw the Federation before the strike broke out in an attempt to avert it. There has since been a meeting, and there will be another meeting this afternoon within the hour. We can, therefore, say that a sense of urgency has been brought to play in this situation.

Mr. Dunn

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the port authority and the employers in Liverpool have indicated sympathetic understanding towards the dockers' problems? If this had reached the employees through the medium of the Transport and General Workers' Union and Mr. Jack Jones, the dispute might never have taken place?

Mrs. Castle

I do not want to make comments about the employers' behaviour, or about the union, of the kind which my hon. Friend is inviting me to make. Both in Southampton and in Liverpool the employers are clearly willing to negotiate the points in dispute, and I am hopeful that both disputes will be brought to an end in the near future.

Mr. Fortescue

Is the Minister aware that when the operators of the inland freight depot advertised for workers only five registered dockers applied; of those five, only two turned up for interview; they were engaged and neither of them turned up for duty on the morning for which they were engaged?

Mrs. Castle

These detailed points are matters for the negotiators concerned and not for comment in this House.

Mr. R. Carr

If the national agreement of May, 1968, between the Transport and General Workers' Union and the Container Base Federation is to be amended, will the right hon. Lady consider using her good offices to look at the procedure agreement in that national agreement to see whether it can be improved, so that in future difficulties of this kind would have a better chance of being solved without unofficial action?

Mrs. Castle

I certainly will consider that point. I am not withholding from the House the fact that this strike is in breach of procedure and as such must be deplored. I entirely accept that, but I repeat that in both cases the strikes are taking place against the advice of the union officials concerned and the union is using its best endeavours.