HC Deb 16 July 1970 vol 803 cc1726-34
The Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity (Mr. Robert Carr)

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

In the resumed discussions between the parties under my chairmanship last Monday, the port employers tabled a revised offer. This included the previous offer to increase guaranteed payments to £4 a day, or £20 a week minimum, for every registered dock worker. In addition, they proposed that the £2 modernisation supplement should be increased to £3 per week in those ports where it had not already been merged into the time rate or where interim additional payments had not already been made. They reiterated that they could not agree to any increase in the national basic time rate.

The unions decided to report this offer to a national docks delegate conference on Wednesday, 15th July. They meanwhile asked their members to continue normal working. Most ports were, however, stopped on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The outcome of the delegate conference was reported to me yesterday afternoon by the union representatives. I was informed by Mr. Jones that a recommendation that the employers' offer should be accepted as a basis for further negotiations had been rejected by 43 votes to 39 and that it had been decided to conduct an official strike "until the claim for a higher basic rate is achieved".

The port employers then informed the union representatives in my presence that they were prepared to hold further talks only if the strike was withdrawn; and that, for the reasons which had been discussed at length in the talks under my chairmanship last weekend, they could not agree any increase in the existing basic time rate.

I subsequently had separate meetings with representatives of the T.U.C. and of the C.B.I.

From all these discussions it became clear that the unions were not prepared to resume talks on the basis of an increase in the modernisation payment which had been under discussion last weekend. For their part, the employers were not prepared to take part in talks on the existing basic rates, nor while the strike was still on.

In view of the very grave consequences for the nation of the deadlock resulting from the positions taken by the two sides, I have decided to appoint immediately a Court of Inqiury. I will announce the terms of reference and membership as soon as possible.

This will involve a full and independent investigation and assessment to be made of the merits of the unions' claim and of the employers' offer. In view of this, and the very serious effects of the strike for the nation, as well as for the future prosperity of the industry and of the dockers themselves, I would urge the unions to consider suspending their industrial action.

Mrs. Castle

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we all regret that his efforts have failed and that we now face a protracted national dock strike with all the embittering of relations which can flow from that? But is he also aware that the attitude of the employers in refusing to continue talks although Mr. Jones had expressed his willingness to continue to try to find a way of breaking the deadlock is rather disturbing? While we would, of course, all hope that a Court of Inquiry would help, could we not ask him, before he sets up a Court of Inquiry, to make another effort himself, and a very determined effort, to bring the two sides together and to get talks resumed?

Mr. Carr

My judgment is that the best way of making progress is now through a Court of Inquiry, but, of course, I would be prepared to listen to any representations which either side wish to make to me and, of course, to see them. I hope the right hon. Lady is wrong in her use of the word "protracted". I also hope that we shall not criticise in this House the attitude of either side. I have attempted as much as I can, I hope sucessfully, not to do so. I think we should realise that both sides have very firm positions and that both sides are, in their own ways, showing inflexibility because of the depth of their feelings on the merits of the issue. For a hopeful moment late last Sunday night and on Monday that inflexibility dissolved and we seemed to have found a common ground for negotiation. It is a great pity—that is an understatement—that by a narrow majority yesterday that common ground for negotiation was cut away from under us.

Mr. Grimond

May I ask the Secretary of State how long he expects it will be before the Court of Inquiry can be expected to report? Secondly, do we understand from his replies that it is unlikely that negotiations between the two sides will be resumed till the Court of Inquiry has reported? I hope he will be able to say that is not the case. With reference to my own constituency, while grateful for the consideration already given to it, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he can say that places such as Orkney and Shetland and other islands will at least be no worse off than those places whose main communications are across land?

Mr. Carr

I hope I can give the right hon. Gentleman the assurance he wants in respect of the last part of his question. As to the first part of his question, this is a very complicated matter, as I found in the lengthy discussions I shared over last weekend. It is clear that a Court of Inquiry could not reach its conclusions in a day or two, but, of course, I shall appoint it with maximum speed and, of course, I shall make clear, though I doubt whether that will be necessary, to the Court of Inquiry the urgency with which investigations must be carried out. As to the negotiations, I would not have taken the decision to appoint a Court of Inquiry unless I had most regretfully come to the conclusion that we were not likely to make further progress by direct negotiations between the parties, but, as I said, I am still prepared to listen to both of them.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind, as I am sure he does, that there are not two sides in this dispute but three, and that the third is the side which is being sat on? I refer to the millions of people in the country endeavouring to live on small fixed incomes who have to try to bear the brunt of inflation which is caused by what many regard as only a uniquely selfish approach.

Mr. Carr

I have made clear, I hope, both in this House and to the parties, the immense national damage which is going to be caused by this dispute and by every day it continues.

Mr. Heffer

Is it not perfectly clear that had the employers been prepared to have made one gesture in relation to an increase in the basic time rate there could have been a settlement of this dispute? Is it, therefore, not clear that the full responsibility for the present situation in fact squarely rests on the shoulders of the employers and their inflexible attitude? [HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."] In view of the fact that the right hon. Gentleman the other day said he was not prepared to lean on either side—I am not opposed to the idea of a Court of Inquiry—could he not, even at this late hour, before establishing the Court of Inquiry, now lean on the employers in order to get a fair proposal to the dockers so that we can get a quick resumption of work?

Mr. Carr

I think the hon. Member is not helping the cause—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—we should have in mind. The employers did make an offer—

Mr. Heffer

Not on the time rate.

Mr. Carr

—which the union leaders were prepared to discuss and prepared to put to their delegate conference. It was evidently sufficiently real an offer for further negotiations on that basis, only to be rejected by the narrowest of margins. I do really think, therefore, that it is simply not fair to try to apportion blame in that way, and I will have no part in it on either side.

Mr. John Mendelson

In view of the fact that this is now an official strike, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to use his influence with the employers not to maintain the rigid attitude that they will not negotiate till the men are back? It has always been accepted doctrine that the Government take one view of an unofficial strike and another of an official strike. In this case it would be quite wrong for the employers to persist in this attitude and it is the right hon. Gentleman's duty to encourage them to negotiate even while the strike is still on.

Mr. Carr

I have probed both sides very fully and deeply on this matter. The House must realise that the first thing is to find a subject about which the two sides can and will negotiate. We believed that that had been found when we got the talks on to the subject of an increase in the modernisation pay. Now we have not a subject about which the two sides feel able to negotiate.

Mr. Holland

Although we shall hear more about the Court of Inquiry on a subsequent occasion, will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that the terms of reference will be unrestricted, and that the powers to hear evidence will be equally unrestricted?

Mr. Carr

The terms of reference will be guided by the 1919 Act under which the Court of Inquiry will be set up, and certainly they will be sufficient to allow the matter to be gone into in the depth required.

Mr. Mikardo

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the current trouble stems from the fact that until four weeks ago the employers were negotiating rather expansively because they were all expecting, and most of them were hoping, that the industry would be nationalised and that they would not have to pay the wage inceases—[Laughter.] In the last four weeks they have suddenly tightened up because, for the first time, it is their own money they are talking about. Is he aware that, notwithstanding the hilarity of his hon. Friends, everybody in the industry, employers and workers alike, know that to be the case, and will he ensure that the terms of reference of the Court of Inquiry are such that that key factor can be taken into account?

Mr. Carr

The purpose of the Court of Inquiry is to find a means whereby the national dock strike can be brought to an end at the earliest possible moment, and that is what should guide my drafting of the terms of reference. The hon. Member will know, and the House should realise, that the average earnings of dockers over the last four years have risen by 57 per cent., compared with an increase of 22½ per cent. in the average earnings of male workers in the same period. As far as I am aware, it has been the employers' money which has been paying those wages. I do not think the hon. Member aids the cause of peace in this dispute by remarks of that sort.

Mr. Evelyn King

Apart from the wider issue, will the Minister say something about the much narrower but quite serious issue which affects Weymouth in my constituency, another port on the South Coast and the Channel Islands? There has been a rumour that the employees were willing to make special provision in this area. Will the Minister confirm this, or say something about it?

Mr. Carr

I am afraid that I cannot confirm it absolutely. I hope that it will be the case, and I will keep it in mind. I hope, in view of my appointment of the Court of Inquiry, that the unions will listen to the plea, which I hoped could have the support of the whole House, that industrial action should be suspended while the Court of Inquiry sits.

Mrs. Castle

Without wishing in any way to prejudge the merits of the arguments for the claim and counter offer—although it is only fair to point out that there has been a sharp reduction in manpower during this period and therefore a marked increase in productivity; fair is fair, let us just put that on the record—is not there one very marked difference between the two sides, in that Mr. Jack Jones is willing and anxious to continue talking and the employers are refusing to do so? In that situation, is not it the duty of the right hon. Gentleman now to lean on the employers to talk?

Mr. Carr

Unfortunately, because of the decision of the delegate conference yesterday by that very narrow majority, Mr. Jones is not able to talk about the one area in relation to the basic rate—that is not the only subject—which after much probing both sides felt able to negotiate about. This is the tragedy of the present position. It is not just unwillingness to talk; it is a lack of ability now to find an area of negotiation about which the parties are able to negotiate.

Mr. John Hall

Does not my right hon. Friend agree, in view of the serious long-term damage that could be caused to the economy of the country and the extreme delicacy of the present position, that it would be far better if we did not make his task more difficult by continuing questions?

Mr. Michael Foot

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm the rumour widely spread that he intends to appoint Lord Kindersley as Chairman of the Court of Inquiry? While we all appreciate the efforts the right hon. Gentleman has made over the past few days and recognise the gravity of a national dock strike, may it not be that what the country will be suffering from in the next few weeks is an absence of instant government from the Prime Minister?

Mr. Carr

I would have thought that the Government might be greatly benefiting from the last quality which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. On the first part of the question, on all sides we should avoid imaginative suggestions, even though they may be amusing, unless they are very well considered.

Mr. Delargy

The Secretary of State said that the employers had made an offer which I think he described as a reasonable offer. Had that offer anything to do with the basic rate, which is what the dispute is about? It is about nothing else and, strictly speaking, any other offer apart from an offer on the basic rate is irrelevant.

Mr. Carr

I do not think that I applied any adjective to the offer. I stated that the employers had made an offer, and that it was an offer which was sufficiently interesting for Mr. Jack Jones and other union leaders to feel that it should be presented to the delegate conference, which was done yesterday. The delegate conference thought it sufficiently interesting as a basis for negotiation to reject it only by the narrowest of margins.

Mr. Harold Wilson

In view of the right hon. Gentleman's unwillingness to try to get the two sides together—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Noise does not help to solve a difficult problem.

Mr. Wilson

I am basing myself on the right hon. Gentleman's statement in which he said that he had decided to set up a Court of Inquiry. In view of the right hon. Gentleman's attitude on this, which I have no doubt he will reconsider from day to day, and in view of certain words used in his statement, is he saying that there is a reversion to what used to be the practice of not having negotiations when a strike is in progress? Is he aware—I am sure he must be—that over a period of years that old principle has been departed from, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, not only in official but even in unofficial strikes, and that this has led to settlement? Is he saying that it is a principle, as the employers are apparently saying, that there can be no negotiations unless the strike has been called off?

The right hon. Gentleman has twice quoted the 57 per cent. wage figure, which I have no reason to think is anything but accurate, but will he say by how much productivity has gone up in that period and how much the labour force in the industry has gone down as a result of that productivity?

Mr. Carr

The labour force during this period has declined by about 25 per cent.—I am speaking off the cuff from memory. I will answer a detailed question on this on another occasion if I am asked. The cost of labour per ton moved through the docks, which is a crude measure of productivity because it takes no account of new capital investment for example, is, according to our calculations, about the same as it was four years ago, which means that the increase in wages has been offset by the reduction in the number of people, although that measure takes no account of increased investment. This is a good part of the story, and this is why it is so vitally important to get on with the problem of modernisation, the pay structures and the methods of working in the docks.

The great tragedy of the strike is that it has interrupted this process. As for the earlier part of the question, I would simply say that there was a strike in progress yesterday when I saw both sides separately and together. This quite clearly shows that there is no rigid principle about negotiations not taking place when a strike is in progress.

I regret the first remark made by the Leader of the Opposition. It simply is not true, nor do I feel the unions or employers would feel it was true. But for the situation which faces us, I would be tempted to comment more sharply upon the matter.

Mr. Harold Wilson

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said. I want him to understand that I was not trying to suggest that he himself was trying to maintain a rigid position. I was basing myself on his own statement when he based his own course of action on the fact that the employers were not willing, and I quote to take part in talks … while the strike was still on. That is what I was trying to draw to his attention. I was not trying to criticise the right hon. Gentleman. We understand the very grave situation and the difficult personal policy dilemma which the Minister faces. We shall give him all the help that we can.

Mr. Carr

I accept what the Leader of the Opposition says, but he must also realise that the blockage in the way of talks is not on only one side. There are subjects about which the unions will not talk. This is what is creating the difficulty, because what the unions will talk about the employers will not, and vice versa. If we could get common ground about negotiation, which I thought we had achieved last Monday evening, I feel quite sure that talks could and would have taken place.