HC Deb 16 July 1970 vol 803 cc1735-9
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Reginald Maudling)

Faced with a nation wide stoppage in the docks, the Government must take steps to discharge their responsibility to maintain essential services and to minimise disruption which could have a serious effect on the life of the community. They have therefore thought it right to advise the proclamation of an emergency under Section 1 of the Emergency Powers Act, 1920, as amended, followed by the making of Regulations under Section 2.

Where a situation arises which carries with it a serious threat to the essentials of life of the community, it is the clear duty of the Government of the day to make use of the machinery provided by Parliament for such a contingency.

The Regulations under Section 2 were made this afternoon. Copies will be available tomorrow. My right hon. Friend will be making, in his Business Statement, an announcement about the arrangements for debating these Regulations. They are on the same lines as those made in 1966, and confer enabling powers on Ministers which they will only use if and when the necessity arises.

Mr. Callaghan

If the Government have reached the conclusion that these powers are necessary, the Opposition would not wish to challenge them if they are essential to keep the life of the community going. I understand from what the right hon. Gentleman has said that they are on the same lines as the previous occasion when they were heavily criticised by the then Opposition. May I ask the Home Secretary whether he intends to convey to the House that these Regulations give an all-embracing grip by the State on every citizen. There is at least one power in the Gracious Message that I certainly would want to look at a little carefully.

May I put a specific question to the right hon. Gentleman about increases in food prices. Will he take power to prescribe maximum prices for foodstuffs, in case anybody seeks to take advantage of the situation by putting them up unfairly?

Mr. Maudling

Yes, Sir. These Regulations will be debated in the very near future and they will, as in 1966, cover the question of fixing prices.

Mr. Atkinson

The Home Secretary will have heard his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity say that neither side has indicated whether it would accept the findings of the Court of Inquiry. The Home Secretary no doubt will realise that the employers have said that they are not prepared to negotiate while the strike continues. Is it not an intolerable situation for troops to be used in the docks while the employers refuse to negotiate? Will he also appreciate that there are many on this side of the House, and many trade unionists, who will call for extension of the strike—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—if there is any threat of the use of troops while the employers refuse to negotiate? Will he give an assurance that no instructions will be given for the use of troops in the docks while the employers refuse to negotiate with the trade unions?

Mr. Maudling

My right hon. Friend has appealed to the unions concerned to call off their industrial action while the Court of Inquiry is being held. If, as I hope, that happens, there will be no need for emergency action, but the Government must take the necessary action to maintain essential services to the community.

Mr. Latham

If the right hon. Gentleman disregards the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson)—[interruption.] I do not know what hon. Members opposite are growling about since I have not put my point yet—may I ask the right hon. Gentleman if he will try to give an undertaking to avoid a situation in which private commercial interests have cargoes handled at the taxpayers' expense? For example, should the services of troops be employed, could he see to it that the firms concerned are charged the full economic cost involved?

Mr. Maudling

That seems eminently a point to be made in the debate on the Regulations.

Mr. Speaker

I would remind the House that we are debating this issue on Monday.

Mr. Driberg

Will the Home Secretary please say plainly whether it is proposed, and at what stage, to send troops into the docks? Is he aware that nothing is less likely to expedite a settlement?

Mr. Maudling

Troops will be used in the docks if it is necessary to maintain essential services. The actual timing and use of them will depend on the requirements of the port emergency committees which will be set up under the Regulations. However, as I have said, if my right hon. Friend's appeal is heeded, it will not be necessary.

Mr. John Mendelson

The Home Secretary has been very one-sided in his replies to my hon. Friends the Members for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) and Barking (Mr. Driberg). He keeps on referring to the appeal by the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity to the unions. Will not he say equally to the House and the country that the employers must abandon their rigid position in refusing to negotiate while the strike is on? Only then will he have made an evenhanded statement, and only then will we be able to judge any proposed Regulations issued on Monday in the light of his statement today.

Mr. Maudling

No, I will not, any more than my right hon. Friend, be involved on one side or the other. The point is that a Court of Inquiry is to be set up and, in those circumstances, I hope that the industrial action will not continue.

Mr. Molloy

Will the Home Secretary impress upon his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity the need to understand that the key issue in the strike, which probably would end it within 48 hours or less, is whether the employers will agree to sit down and discuss the basic rate of dock workers? That is the whole point which is holding up procedures. The dockers and the union leaders cannot be expected to back-track. Their real dilemma and that which now faces the nation is simply that the port employers are not prepared to discuss with the dockers' representatives the essence of this dispute, which is the basic rate.

Mr. Maudling

I had the impression that my right hon. Friend had already dealt with that point.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

The Home Secretary said in reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) that the Regulations are similar to the last ones. However, he will be aware that this is a different situation, in that it is an official strike. Will he try, wherever possible, to discuss with the union any action that he proposes before actually taking it? That may tend, at least, to prevent tempers being worse frayed than they are. Obviously the right hon. Gentleman will have the last word, but I think that it would be helpful if he discussed any proposed action with the union leaders.

Mr. Maudling

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, the Regulations are on the same lines because the degree of emergency is the same. On his second point, I think that, once again, this would be better raised in the debate on the Regulations.

Mr. English

In view of their existing commitments if troops have to be used, are there sufficient troops available for the purpose? Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman say what other Regulations which it is proposed to introduce are likely to become immediately effective?

Mr. Maudling

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, the answer is "Yes". On his second point, I ask him to await the publication of the Regulations.

Dr. Miller

Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether the powers which he seeks are all-embracing, as he seems to indicate? Will they include the possibility of the right hon. Gentleman interceding on behalf of an hon. Member of this House who is in gaol in Ulster?

Mr. Callaghan

Cannot we have a clearer answer than that given to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English)? Surely it is not possible to find troops to replace 50,000 dockers for the unloading and loading of cargoes in our docks and, therefore, the situation is extremely serious? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the leader of the dock workers in the Royal Group of docks has already said that if the Army has to be used the troops will not be hindered by the dockers but that the Army's task will be an extremely difficult and dangerous one and will be impossible to carry out for sheer lack of numbers?

Mr. Maudling

It will be a difficult task, and this is part of the measure of the difficulty that we face. However, we are satisfied that adequate personnel are available to carry out the Government's duty, which is to maintain essential services.

Mr. Mikardo

Further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English), can the right hon. Gentleman say which troops he will use for unloading cargoes in the ports of Belfast and Londonderry?

Mr. Maudling

Those who are most appropriate.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. Whitelaw. Statement.