HC Deb 23 July 1969 vol 787 cc2067-81

9.50 a.m.

Captain Walter Elliot (Carshalton)

I wish to draw attention to the problems in the London docks. I have been associated with docks off and on for a good many years. On the problems in the London docks my attention was first focussed by letters written to me by Merchant Navy skippers using the docks. I should like to quote extracts from two of those letters. The first letter states: S.S. … arrived and anchored off Southend 20th January as no berth or labour available. Berthed 1st February and commenced discharge, short manned until 7th February, completing 18th February after delays caused by stop-work meetings, strikes, etc. … Delay 20 days. The second letter reads: M.V. … Arrived and anchored Southend 23rd January. As there was no hope of berth or labour in the near foreseeable future she was diverted to Southampton where the London cargo was discharged, the cost of return to London being mainly at the ship owner's expense, and obviously adding to the cost of the goods to the eventual consumer. No one would deny that delays like that are damaging. All, or nearly all, our raw materials and finished goods pass through our ports, and, of all our sea ports, London is the most important because of the large proportion with which it deals.

What are the troubles and difficulties there? It was said recently of British industry that there is a tinge of anarchy. At times it seems not unjust to apply that expression at least to some of the docks and wharves in London. In fact, the way ahead to a brighter and more prosperous future, if the undergrowth is cleared, is well within reach and in a reasonable time. But I must admit that the undergrowth is dense and prickly, and to clear it is a complex and delicate problem.

To illustrate this complexity, I should like to give the views of two employers. The first says, … including, of course, our national export and import traders, who see their businesses being held up and ruined by strikes, and more and more ships being driven away from London to continental ports. Led by a self-appointed and self-styled liaison committee and fanned by agitators and troublemakers, the general attitude at the docks has led only to irresponsibility, chaos and frustration. I could go on. The second says: The success of this agreement as applied to No.… Berth has been that the crew of 20 men has received packaged timber and forest products from up to seven gangs discharging ex ship and has sorted, piled and delivered such goods up to a total of 4,200 tons dw. in one ten-hour shift.… the grain terminal is to operate on a two-shift system, while the labour at the U.S. Lines container berth have regularly honoured their agreement to work at any hour of the day or night, this having already included Whit Monday Whit Sunday and Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I could go on with other employers on those lines. There is a stark contrast between the two. To simplify my approach to this complicated and intricate industry of the Port of London, I have looked at it under three headings: men, management and modernisation. The third is the modernisation not only of machines but also of methods, and is the responsibility of both men and managements. It will not be achieved without the help of both, but I should like to discuss the first two elements, men and management, and combine the third with them.

First, let me consider the men. I do not suppose I am saying anything new when I say that their attitudes to a large extent are formed by past history. The average age is high, and their memories are long. They seek high wages, and their resistance to change is based on a desire for security. The rigid rules of demarcation spring from the anxiety for job security. For many years London port workers have been paid on a piecework basis, but now they have a guaranteed weekly wage, called fallback, of £17, plus an incentive bonus. Piecework systems are still retained, but I think it is admitted that they are a prolific source of trouble. In any case they are an obstacle to what seems to be an essential need; namely, the introduction of flexible manning, and by that I mean for the men to be interchangeable and the numbers in the gangs to be decided on grounds of efficiency and safety and changed as necessary with changing conditions.

Without that mobility, it is not possible to take advantage of modern mechanical developments. What is asked for from the men is not the sweat of piecework, but the operation of machinery and the flexible approach that is needed to make its installation worth while. They are offered more horsepower at their elbow, and it would be strange indeed if they were to continue to resist this offer, because of what it would give them.

Since decasualisation the men have been freed from the insecurity of not knowing what the weekly wage will be. At least they know that there is a line below which it will not fall. But decasualisation is only a means to an end, and the end is the abolition of all the remaining restrictions and the effective use of manpower and facilities, including the fullest possible use of mechanical aids. Acceptance of these will mean not only a speedier handling of cargo and a quicker turnround but the best possible earning opportunities for the men.

I should like to refer briefly to the imbalance in the labour force. To cut a long story short, on decasualisation in 1967 the companies were obliged to absorb labour irrespective of the physical capacity of the men. I make no comment on that, but each company finds itself with about 20 per cent. of the labour force who are not able, and some not willing, to work productively. In addition, under the voluntary severance scheme, both fit and unfit men have left. A side effect of this has been to stop all recruiting since 1965, which has put up the average age of the men. I mention this only to show what the companies are doing, and the nature of the problem they face. It would help greatly if this problem were solved quickly.

Finally, in this part of my speech let me mention briefly the disruptive element. Jack Dash is going, as we know, but two others—and I repeat two others—are being trained to take his place. In the interests of time I shall not quote what the first employer to whom I referred earlier said, but these elements are damaging, and at times create chaos. Employers negotiate with the unions, but what are they to think when these organisations allow self-styled and self-appointed committees to be set up? Perhaps the unions are powerless. If that is so, surely it is an overwhelming argument for strengthening them by comprehensive industrial relations legislation? Surely employers have the right to expect an agreement freely negotiated to be honoured, and we shall watch with interest the action which the T.U.C. takes in the London docks if thee occasions arise. I do not believe that there is any area where action is more necessary.

In many cases also attitudes spring from history and traditions. The view is held by some managers that a high basic wage structure will not give the necessary incentive to the men who by tradition are paid as pieceworkers. They retain the view that by the sweat of piecework that financial rewards will be earned and incentives provided. All appreciate, of course, the advantages of flexibility and mobilitity of labour, but until they modernise their installations, they cannot get that and until they get it they cannot modernise. Some who have done so are reaping their rewards, and so are the men who work for them, but there is a wide diversity in the docks and wharves. Some are old, some employers lack initiative and there are too many of them although fewer than before decasualisation.

Progress on a wide front is needed to modernise but it is too slow. Like the unions, employers' associations are weak and lack unity. This creates uncertainty and weakens the credibility of any agreements that are made. A further real fear is that some shipowners, through expediency—this is understandable—are not always prepared to enforce agreements. Earnings of workers naturally tend to vary between employers, but the weakness of the two main parties, unions and employers, give ample scope of disruptive operations. What is the employer to do?

Mr. W. S. Hilton (Bethnal Green)

This matter concerns my constituency. The hon. and gallant Member has mentioned disruptive tactics. That was after he spoke of weakness of employers' organisations and unions. Does he mean to imply that employers also employ disruptive practices, and problems flow from that?

Captain Elliot

I shall not go into that, but I can hardly see that employers would deliberately employ disruptive practices.

The employer should strengthen his association. He needs an economically viable labour force prepared to work flexibly. Until he gets it, further modernisation will not lead to greater productivity, but the two must go together. With the continuous and flexible use of an economically viable labour force, more supervision becomes necessary. Some employers provide this now, but lack of supervision seems to be prevalent. With modernisation of machines and methods, the employer is able to offer the best earnings opportunities for his men. This will be the incentive for the future.

Hovering over the whole scene is the spectre of nationalisation. The Government, looking at docks, have decided to control and promote the important changes required. This means national ownership. Nationalisation, as in other industries, would lead to higher costs, rigidity, a non-competitive structure and further burdens on the nation. The industry is moving in the right direction. It needs not to change direction but to speed up movement. With progress in modernisation on ship and shore, there should not be a division of control between the two. To get the full advantage of modernisation we need one control from the ship to the sheds—that is, vertical integration with perhaps specialisation by trade. Nationalisation leads to horizontal integration along the jetties. Once the docks have been nationalised, the ships may suffer the same fate. Is that the Government's ultimate intention? If so, the burden on the country will in my opinion be still greater.

May I sum up? What impresses me in the London Docks is the confidence which those working there have in the industry and its future. They know what has to be done. They know where they are going—not all, but many of them. They are moving along the right road, but too slowly. They are delayed by disruptive elements who are no friends of the port workers, but those elements are not as strong as they were.

Both unions and employers need to strengthen their organisations and achieve greater unity. For the unions the days of uncertainty for their members are over and so are the days of piecework and rigid demarcation. The port worker of the future will be mobile, interchangeable and skilled in the use of mechanical aids. The employer will no longer have to deal with constant difficulties caused by piecework. He will concentrate his attention on achieving a smooth flow of cargo from ship to shed and vice versa in the flexible and continuous use of his labour force. He will judge his success not by the output of sweat from his men but by the proper and continuous use of his machinery.

The London docks are moving in the right direction but one thing more is necessary—for the Government to refrain from imposing an enormous bureaucracy on their backs.

10.7 a.m.

Mr. W. S. Hilton (Bethnal Green)

I will not detain the House for more than a few minutes but I have one advantage over the hon. and gallant Member for Carshalton (Capt. W. Elliot)—London dockers form part of my constituency of Bethnal Green. Throughout his speech he attempted to spotlight a problem which obviously is the concern of all hon. Members. No one wants an important industry of this country to be a bottleneck to industrial progress and a better economic future for everyone, and the docks are in a particularly important situation because it is through them that our exports flow.

But when the hon. and gallant Gentleman suggested that traditions connected with the docks might limit their expansion he was limited by his own thinking on union organisation and union people, and that is why I asked him to give way when he mentioned disruptive elements. I believe that if there are a large number of employers in the docks, some of whom are not at all happy to take part in any discipline, their action can lead to disruption taking place. My experience throughout my life in the trade union movement is that if there are any agitators or so-called agitators who can bring about disruption, they cannot do it on mythical grounds. There must always be some genuine grievance or some genuine basis, and that is usually provided by employers who refuse to face up to their responsibilities.

There are some people in my constituency who still remember being treated like caged animals, with docks foremen coming along to pick out from among them the best performers for the docks circus in the coming week. That kind of thing does not leave a man's mind in a hurry. If we say that they ought to drop that attitude on the promise of mechanisation and a better future, to the hon. Member and myself that seems very reasonable because we have never worked in the docks or suffered that experience, but I am sure that if we had done so we might take a more cautious attitude.

I want the mechanisation of the docks. I do not want men to sweat in the docks any more than I want them to get pit black down the mines of the country. I want them to lead dignified lives. But there are still cargoes in the docks which are stinking, unhealthy and unhygienic, and mechanisation does nothing to remove the disincentive of working on those cargoes.

In almost any argument concerning the unions and management and the economics of any operation flowing from it, I am prepared to say that management is at fault without examining the circumstances too closely, for this reason—and I believe that the hon. and gallant Member agrees with me: management is always the initiator of change. That lies in the hands of management. Management efficiency lies in the hands of management and not in the hands of the workers. The workers can only respond. In the London docks, management has been reluctantly driven to becoming efficient and to giving security. It has not voluntarily offered them to the men. If management had come along voluntarily and said to my dockers "We will do this" we might have had a different attitude to dock mechanisation. The docker's memory shows him that he has to struggle for everything and sometimes he has to struggle for efficiency and mechanisation in his job.

Often, moving towards mechanisation brings about greater fears among dockers for the security of their work. They are not alone in this. Some of the greatest obstacles to the economic progress of this country have been caused by mechanisation threatening the interest of some group. This affects not only the dockers, but the capital side of the industry, and one can then hardly blame my people, who have less in capital resources, for feeling insecure.

Management has a responsibility for taking the initiative, and the reason why Government are looked to to bring a more integrated and more widespread management is that in the docks the rump of small employers have helped to bring about the present situation and only by widespread efficiency can we have hope for the future.

The hon. Member is sincerely concerned about this problem, but I am concerned about the men in any drive towards efficiency. It is the management side on which we have to concentrate if we are to have a better life for dockers and for industry in future.

10.12 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Department of Employment and Productivity (Mr. Harold Walker)

The hon. and gallant Member for Carshalton (Captain W. Elliot) has raised a matter of deep concern and presented it in a sincere manner. The Government share that concern.

In several ways, the hon. and gallant Gentleman correctly diagnosed some of the problems with which we are confronted in the London docks. Labour troubles and inefficiency are not novel problems in Britain's port industry. They are not newcomers to London docks. These are problems which have been with us for a long time, and the search for solutions has bedevilled a succession of Governments and Ministers.

It is misleading, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green (Mr. Hilton), pointed out, to blame it on one side, and when the hon. and gallant Member for Carshalton refers to wider industrial relations problems, I would say to him, as I have said several times to the House and as the Minister has said several times also, that in all these matters the primary responsibility lies with management. It is unfair and misleading to keep attributing the ills of British industrial relations to one side of industry.

Captain W. Elliot

I hope that nothing in my speech implied that I attributed everything to one side only.

Mr. Walker

I am sorry if I did the hon. and gallant Member an injustice. As I said before, I think he correctly diagnosed some of the problems and referred to the weakness of management and of the structure of management organisation.

What I can fairly claim to be new is the determined attempt embarked on by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southwark (Mr. Gunter) when he was Minister of Labour and appointed a Committee of Inquiry under Lord Devlin in October, 1964. The effort which he made led to some of the most sweeping and progressive reforms that the industry has experienced and set in motion a process of change, the momentum of which has been maintained throughout the period since and is still maintained at present. The Devlin Committee investigated the main causes of disorder which afflicted the industry. Some of these have been eradicated, some have been diminished, and it is a matter for regret that some others will persist. I understand and share the hon. and gallant Gentleman's anxiety that greater progress should be made towards greater efficiency, and that it should proceed faster. But I recall the words of my right hon. Friend when putting the Devlin stage I proposals before the House, when he said that he believed there would be troubled times ahead before we reached smoother waters.

I do not think that any of us would be so naive as to underrate the obstacles to progress, not the least of which is the burden of the inheritance of the dockers, the history to which the hon. and gallant Gentleman referred, and the fear of the future. Equally, one should not underrate what has already been achieved. No doubt the hon. and gallant Gentleman has, like me, visited the London docks and seen the new cargo handling methods which are being used there—the mechanised handling of meat and of bananas in the Royal Group. There are still obstacles to its acceptance, but pre-packaged timber is being discharged.

These measures are having their impact on the labour force. They are other measures are leading to dramatically increased productivity, a fact confirmed by the rundown in the number of registered dock workers in London docks. The registered dock labour force on 18th October, 1967, was 23,616. By 15th July this year it had fallen to 19,842. Because of the introduction of the new voluntary severance payment scheme, there are already further commitments, which make the estimated registered dock labour force by mid-August about 18,500. In other words, in two years there will have been a 22 per cent. reduction in the labour force, which is at the same time an indication of increased productivity, a reflection of the changes taking place, and an indication of the source of anxiety that inhibits the dockers from a ready acceptance of further changes without assurances and guarantees for the future.

Furthermore, the level of investment in ports generally, a level that London shares, has been greatly increased. With the assistance of Government grants and loans, the current level in ports is about £50 million, contrasted with about £18 million in 1964—a dramatic increase in the rate of investment, much of which has gone into London docks in the new techniques which the dockers are accepting.

The old casual labour system, long regarded as one of the major evils in the industry and one of the greatest obstacles to progress, ended in 1967. The hon. and gallant Gentleman talked of the need to strengthen employer's organisations within the industry. I am sure that he recognises that this will come about through a reduction in the number of employers, and as a consequent of the implementation of the Devlin stage I proposals there has been a substantial reduction in the number of employers in London docks, with a strengthening and improvement in their organisation as a consequence.

It would be equally false for us to believe or assume that these changes and opposition to them are unique to Britain. Other countries have experienced the same kind of difficulties, perhaps in different degree, as we have endured. In the United States there was a protracted strike on the East Coast waterfront last year because of the introduction of just the same kind of changes as are meeting resistance here. In Australia the same changes have met with resistance. It is true that in some of the Continental ports there has been a more ready acceptance of them, but this is partly because of the different historical background. As a consequence of the effects of the war on them, they were able to start from scratch.

Equally, there is no basis for complacency. We must press ahead. It might be to the benefit of the House and of the hon. and gallant Gentleman, who is, I think, familiar with the background, if I say something about the current stage of the negotiations, because we are at a singularly critical point in these negotiations, which will determine to a large degree the rate of future progress within the industry in London docks.

The current negotiations have taken place against a background of two underlying problems. First is the problem of surplus labour as a consequence of decasualisation. There is also the question of the intensification of the problem of unequal earnings opportunities because of the uneven introduction of new techniques and the fact that, where these are being introduced, there are greater earnings opportunities than in the berths, docks and wharves where conventional cargo handling still persists.

In seeking implementation of Devlin stage 2, this problem was recognised by the National Modernisation Committee chaired by an officer of my Department. It recognised that earnings would continue to vary between ports and between employees within the port. It was because of this uneven rate of introduction of new techniques and the disparities which have arisen, coupled with the fears arising from redundancy, that the Transport and General Workers Union, in January, 1968, placed a ban on the implementation of certain new techniques until a comprehensive package deal had been negotiated for the whole of the docks.

Mr. Simon Mahon (Bootle)

With my hon. Friend's considerable knowledge of the industry, can he tell us how many hours of work he thinks a dock labourer should do to earn an adequate modern wage?

Mr. Walker

I hope my hon. Friend will wait until I have described the present state of events. I hope that he will equally accept that I could not give a quantified answer to him. It would be wrong for me to do so for reasons that I shall explain.

The fact that the ban has been imposed has not prevented the introduction of certain new agreements. There have been a number of new agreements providing for new methods of working and accepted by the union since the implementation of the ban. Behind the ban was the desire of the union to safeguard both earnings levels and the future security of its members employed in London docks.

On 27th June the employers responded by saying to the union, which organises the majority of dockers in London, that they were not prepared to continue negotiations on stage 2 unless and until the ban was lifted. Since then there have been no formal negotiations between the two sides, although informal discussions continued until, on 10th July, at the request of the official policy-making body of the union in London docks, the No. 1 Docks Group, a meeting was held, under my Department's chairmanship, between the union and the employers interested in the removal of the ban. These included representatives of the National Association of Port Employers, the London Port Employers, the London Overseas Trade Employers Association, the Port of London Authority, the Wharfingers, and the Container Base Federation, which owns the container base at Orsett, near Tilbury.

As a consequence of that meeting, a further meeting of the No. 1 Docks Group was held last night. A further meeting between the employers and the union has been arranged for today. It is because of this that I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Simon Mahon) will accept that it would be improper for me to say anything now which might in any way prejudice the negotiations, the outcome of which we all hope will be successful. It is contrary to the accepted tradition of the House to make statements which would be prejudicial to such negotiations.

I am sure that I am expressing the hope of all hon. Members that the meeting taking place today will have a successful outcome that it will be fruitful and will pave the way for the kind of developments in the industry which have been mentioned and which all hon. Members hope to see speedily achieved.

The hon. and gallant Member referred to the Government's proposals for the reorganisation of the ports. This is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport, but I should like to emphasise that this reorganisation of the ports is not a doctrinaire method of fulfilling a political ideology but a clear recognition not merely on the part of the Government but of previous Governments and the Rochdale Commission as long ago as 1962 of the need for reorganisation with a central planning authority, and the proposals outlined in the White Paper go towards achieving that end.

The Government's awareness of the growing importance of through transport and vertical integration of businesses is made clear by the references to them in the White Paper itself. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport is certainly aware of these points and has it in mind that the legislation should be rated so as to give adequate scope for considering the problems and circum- stances of individual cases before decisions are made.

Nevertheless, the fragmentation of services and operations within the ports has to be reduced in order to achieve the greatest possible degree of efficiency. It will also be conducive to better industrial relations. The Government's view is that the nationalised authorities should become the principal operators of port facilities and services within their own ports and, by virtue of that, the operators of port labour, and this remains one of the cardinal requirements of the reorganisation.

The hon. and gallant Member referred to disruptive elements. No doubt he will derive satisfaction from my assurance that the unofficial liaison committee has been dissolved in view of the policy, and the degree of success in achieving it, of the Transport and General Workers Union. I should like to take up what he said about Jack Dash. I have had a long involvement myself in trade union activities and in industrial relations at shop floor level. In the whole of my experience I never came across one of these dynamic personalities who, by his sheer personality and little else, could persuade thousands or scores of thousands of men to follow him in a broad line of action dictated by himself and his own ideas.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green said, an individual can be the spark to the gunpowder, but the gunpowder has to be provided by the circumstances, and the circumstances are the historical background of the industry including the attitudes of employers within the industry in other days, to which the hon. and gallant Member referred, I am glad to say. These factors led to the present situation. This is the second time within a week that I have heard the suggestion that an individual, by virtue of his own personality, has been able to induce men to participate in this kind of strike action.

I hope that I have made it clear that the industry is making radical progress and that, although there are obstacles to be overcome, and they are formidable obstacles, they are not intractable, that modernisation is proceeding and that we share the hon. and gallant Gentleman's hope and anxiety that it will proceed at a faster pace. We express the profound hope that today's discussions, which I hope no words of mine will prejudice, will provide another step towards achieving that end.

Mr. Speaker

I remind the House that I have been appealing for the last 18½ hours for reasonably brief speeches.