HC Deb 13 July 1970 vol 803 cc1149-52
The Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity (Mr. Robert Carr)

With permission, I wish to make a further statement on the national docks dispute.

On Friday, officials of my Department had separate exploratory discussions with representatives of the docks unions and the port employers. On Saturday, the General Secretary of the T.U.C., at his suggestion, met the unions led by Mr. Jack Jones, of the Transport and General Workers' Union, and subsequently the T.U.C. and the unions suggested that they should meet the employers under my chairmanship. The Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry proposed that he also should take part. This was welcomed by the T.U.C., the unions and the port employers. I readily agreed to these arrangements.

A series of meetings under my chairmanship began on Saturday afternoon and extended, with intervals, as the House will be aware, until the early hours of this morning. All that it would be right for me to say about these discussions at this stage is that despite wide differences of approach, both sides have shown great patience and persistence in seeking a solution.

Towards the end of these discussions there were developments in the light of which the representatives of the National Association of Port Employers thought it desirable to consult their Executive Committee this morning. It was agreed that joint talks should be resumed under my chairmanship when this had been done. I have, therefore, arranged to meet the parties immediately following this statement.

I am confident that all concerned will continue their intensive efforts to find a basis for averting the strike and, what I believe is very important, for pressing ahead with the modernisation of the pay structure and working practices of the docks on which both sides have for so long been engaged.

Mrs. Castle

May I, first, thank the right hon. Gentleman for keeping his promise to make another statement today and assure him that, of course, we all wish him well in his talks? In that connection, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to confirm, as I think he was doing in his statement, that neither side in this dispute is looking for a show-down, that contrary to the impression given by certain newspapers, the Government are not seeking to take on the unions any more than the unions are seeking to take on the Government, and that it would be a national tragedy if this dock strike were to occur?

Will the Secretary of State also agree that the talks have shown that the employers' figures of the costs of the unions' claim, which he quoted on Friday and seemed then to accept, may be exaggerated, because any time rate increase would not necessarily affect piece rates? Is there not a hopeful line of advance here?

Mr. Carr

I am not prepared to comment on the last part of the right hon. Lady's question, except simply to say this in case there was any misunderstanding. In my statement on Friday—I think that this will be found to be true if anybody likes to look back to what I said—I made quite clear that I was quoting what the different parties thought and was not in any way meaning to imply that I accepted one rather than the other.

In reply to the first part of the right hon. Lady's question, I completely agree with her. All parties, including the Government, are genuinely and strongly seeking to find a solution in the national interest. I have made clear at every stage of these talks that I am not, to use popular modern jargon, leaning on either side. I have no preconceived solution which I wish to press upon them. I am trying as an independent chairman to help the parties themselves to come to their own agreement, which I also believe will be in the national interest.

Mr. John Page

Has my right hon. Friend seen the report that the dockers at Tilbury have said that they wish to have a strike tomorrow whatever the outcome of the present discussions? Would he comment on this?

Mr. Carr

I think that, on the whole, the House will forgive me if I comment on nothing at the moment.

Mr. Dunn

While wishing the right hon. Gentleman well, as my right hon. Friend has done in indicating her good wishes, may I make him aware that in the Port of Liverpool there is a time-rate agreement which is in excess of the now known basic rate which has not affected piece rates? In fact, this has been deliberately deflated in such a way as not to cause the problem that the employers indicated during the preliminaries to the discussions. Will the right hon. Gentleman look at this matter?

Mr. Carr

I assure the hon. Member and the House that those are the sort of matters I have been looking into at considerable length and considerable depth at hours both p.m. and a.m. for the last three days.

Mr. James Hill

Would not my right hon. Friend agree that it is disgraceful for the Transport and General Workers' Union—[HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."]—to call out men who are getting a basic week's wage of £37 10s.—[HON. MEMBERS: "Not true."]—and, at the same time, offering them—[HON. MEMBERS: "The hon. Member is embarrassing his own party."]—in compensation a miserable £5 a week from union funds?

Mr. Carr

I am not prepared to comment.

Mr. Heffer

Is the Secretary of State aware that the actual basic rate for dockers is £11 1s. 8d. in London and £16 in Liverpool? Is he also aware, however, that the strike notice was handed in 40 days ago, that a period of 42 days would elapse before the strike began to operate and that the methods which are being used for conciliation are much more sensible than any suggestion that he should clobber either the unions or the employers in a situation of this kind?

Mr. Carr

I do not think that anyone is suggesting that anyone is clobbering anyone—

Mr. Heffer

I do not mean the Minister but that idiot over there.

Mr. Carr

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) mentioned particular figures. I think that he was right, but I think that he will also know, and I am sure that the House is aware, that in the dock industry, whatever may be the basic rates, there is a fall-back pay below which no registered docker can fall.

Mr. Holland

Whilst I appreciate the dangers of giving opinions at this stage of the negotiations, can my right hon. Friend say, as a matter of fact, approximately how long it would take to call off industrial action should his patient efforts be fruitful?

Mr. Carr

I cannot answer precisely. I can only say that the procedure which we are following here has the full and willing support of both parties, and I have every hope that if we were to reach a solution which led to the calling off of the strike later this afternoon or this evening the unions would know how to transmit that decision.