HC Deb 27 November 1969 vol 792 cc628-33
The First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity (Mrs. Barbara Castle)

I will, with permission, make a statement about the present difficulties which are preventing the operation of the O.C.L./A.C.T. modernised terminal at Tilbury.

Overseas Containers Limited and Associated Containers Transportation yesterday announced that, in the light of the continued refusal of the No. 1 Docks Group Committee of the Transport and General Workers' Union to lift its ban on the implementation of the agreement reached in January this year, covering the operation of the O.C.L./A.C.T. terminal at Tilbury, they have decided to place on a more permanent basis at Antwerp the alternative arrangements introduced in March for the handling of the U.K./Australia traffic.

O.C.L./A.C.T. are also taking steps to place their Tilbury terminal on a care and maintenance basis and to redeploy staff. O.C.L. is giving further consideration to the dismantling of equipment at Tilbury. I also understand that O.C.L./ A.C.T. are seeking an increase in freight charges to and from Australia to cover additional costs of trans-shipment of cargoes to and from the Continent.

Although, before January, 1968, a number of modernised terminal berth agreements negotiated by the T. & G.W.U. had come into operation, the No. 1 Dock Group Committee then decided to impose a ban on the further implementation of modernised berth agreements until a Stage II Devlin agreement had been reached for London as a whole. The lead in these negotiations has been taken by the employers in the Enclosed Docks and by the T. & G.W.U., and after intensive discussions, an offer by the employers, which provides in return for two-shift working and flexible manning a standard weekly wage of £33 10s. for the great majority of dockers and £36 for those working on ships, was put to the men by ballot earlier this month. It was rejected by 3,090 votes to 2,442.

Following the ballot, the No. 1 Docks Group Committee confirmed their ban on further modernised berth agreements, and at Tilbury yesterday the men rejected by a narrow majority a proposal that they should nevertheless bring the modernised berths at Tilbury into operation. It was these two events which precipitated the O.C.L./A.C.T. decision to which I have referred.

My Department has been in close touch with the two sides throughout these negotiations and has assisted in bringing them together. It has had joint meetings with the employers and with the full No. 1 Docks Group Committee in order to try to get the ban removed.

I fully appreciate the concern of dockers over their future employment prospects in view of the reduced labour requirements which follow the introduction of modern cargo handling methods. In view, however, of the special protection against redundancy afforded to dockers by the Dock Labour Scheme, the successful operation of agreed voluntary severance arrangements introduced in June, 1969, and the introduction from the same date of improved pensions and a lower retirement age, and also of the terms of the Enclosed Docks employers' offer, to which I have already referred, I would urge the union to reconsider its attitude and, without waiting further on the conclusion of the Stage II Devlin negotiations, to lift the ban—in the interests of the country, the port and the men themselves.

I am seeking an early meeting with Mr. Victor Feather, of the T.U.C., and Mr. Jack Jones, of the T. & G.W.U. to discuss the serious position which has now arisen.

Mr. Peter Walker

Does the First Secretary of State agree that the announcements made yesterday are not only disastrous because of the adverse effect which this will have on British exports but will also have an appallingly long-term adverse effect on the whole future of the transport industry? The fact that after eight months' notice of this terminal being closed agreements freely entered into are not being able to operate and there is still no agreement made will mean that our European competitors for container transport will obtain a great advantage.

Does the right hon. Lady recognise, also, that we on this side support her in urging the union quickly to decide to treat the Stage II Devlin negotiations and the agreement already freely entered into on the terminal as completely separate agreements? As, for eight months, nothing has happened, on reflection does not the right hon. Lady consider that her Ministry could have done something during the past eight months to have avoided this position being reached?

We wish her every success in her talks with Mr. Vic Feather and Mr. Jack Jones, but ask her not to hesitate to call a court of inquiry if that will assist to bring about a quick settlement.

Mrs. Castle

It is because I appreciate the far-reaching implications of this situation and the dangers to our modern port developments that I have made this statement this afternoon. I hope that the whole House will join me in urging the separation of the Tilbury arrangements from the negotiations covering the rest of the docks. My Department has taken every possible step, and will continue to take every possible step, which we think will help to secure a solution to this problem.

Mr. Marsh

Without wishing to underestimate the seriousness of the situation, may I ask my right hon. Friend to confirm that there are 13 container berths in Tilbury and that 11 of them are operating as efficiently as any anywhere in the world? Does not part of the problem in the rest of the London docks arise from the multiplicity of employers within the docks, which makes the Opposition's objection to the part of the Ports Bill which is designed to cut down the number of employers quite inexplicable?

Mrs. Castle

It is true that certain modern facilities were brought into operation before the ban was imposed. I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend that the one-employer principle, which he worked so hard to attempt to secure, is vital for the future success of the docks.

Dr. Winstanley

I regret the necessity for this action, but agree that it is the right action now to take. Does the right hon. Lady agree that the underlying trouble is, not so much money, but insecurity? Whilst recognising the protection afforded by the Dock Labour Scheme, will the right hon. Lady do everything she can to allay the fears of these people, which have been aroused, not so much by this situation, as by the way in which they were treated in the past, so that we can move to a more permanent satisfactory solution?

Mrs. Castle

I agree that it is a sense of insecurity which is playing a very big part. The tragedy is that the very ban which is being used as a weapon against insecurity is threatening jobs in the future. Steps have been taken to correct the errors of the past, as I pointed out in my statement, by the voluntary serverance scheme, by the improved pension scheme, by the lowering of the retirement age, and by the continuation of the protection of the docks labour scheme. Everything possible is being done. It is now for the men themselves to safeguard their future by allowing this fine modern terminal to work.

Mr. Delargy

May I, as the Member of Parliament which includes Tilbury, welcome my right hon. Friend's appreciation of the fact that the opposition of the dockers is based almost wholly on their anxieties about redundancy? Could the Government do more to allay these anxieties than they have done already? Is my right hon. Friend aware that, although I am very pleased indeed that she is seeking an early meeting with Mr. Victor Feather and Mr. Jack Jones, I should have been even more pleased if she had said that she was treating such a meeting as a matter of immediate urgency in the interests, as she says, of the country, of the port, and of the men at Tilbury?

Mrs. Castle

I am hoping to have the meeting tonight. I stand ready to have it in the next five minutes, except that I must give time for the other persons concerned to respond to my request and make themselves available. I do not think that we have lost any time.

On the question of improvements in the security of the men, I know that my hon. Friend fully understands the position in the docks. He knows full well that dockers enjoy unique protection against compulsory redundancy, because no employer can discharge a man without the approval of the Dock Labour Board. My hon. Friend also knows that payments substantially in excess of normal redundancy pay—in some cases up to nearly £2,000 per man—are available under the severance scheme. Therefore, a great deal has been done. We must now plead with the dockers to drop the defensive attitudes which are endangering their own future.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

Was it not to avoid a situation such as this that the T.U.C. gave solemn and binding undertakings some time ago? What action have Mr. Feather and his colleagues taken over the last few months to persuade the men at Tilbury to avoid cutting their own throats by these Luddite activities? Is the right hon. Lady aware of the great tragedy it will be if this terminal goes overseas? Has any consideration been given to O.C.L. setting up headquarters in any other part of the United Kingdom?

Mrs. Castle

This situation is quite different from that with which the Tory Government were proposing to deal in their legislation. This is a question of getting acceptance on a new forward-looking agreement. This afternoon we should concentrate on trying to get a change of attitude, instead of hectoring and lecturing men who have the same interest as we have—to see that our ports flourish.

Mr. Michael Heseltine

If the one-employer principle is so vital to good organisation in London, why is it that the trade which London is now losing is going to ports which believe in a multiplicity of labour organisers?

Mrs. Castle

I am not convinced that the hon. Gentleman understands the position. Does he understand, for example, the advantages that flow in the form of more efficient practices where the one-employer principle operates? For example, at the Olsen berth, as a result of the one-employer principle being in operation, there can be complete inter-changeability between quay labour and ship labour, as anybody who knows anything about the docks will understand.

Mr. Mikardo

Has my right hon. Friend found her task in resolving this complex problem made easier by the extent to which some right hon. and hon. Members opposite have sought to make party and anti-union propaganda out of this situation?

Mrs. Castle

I agree with my hon. Friend that on occasions when the House is discussing matters of sensitive industrial relations and very delicate problems of changing human attitudes hon. Members opposite are not very constructive in their approach.