HC Deb 23 July 1970 vol 804 cc800-9
The Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity (Mr. Robert Carr)

I would like, with permission, to make a further statement on the national docks dispute.

All ports covered by the National Dock Labour Scheme and some others are now affected by the strike. Dockers have agreed in some cases to unload certain perishable cargoes in immediate danger of deterioration and to maintain some services to the Orkney and Shetland Islands, the Western Isles, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. In general, however, movement of imports and exports through the ports is at a standstill.

The Court of Inquiry began its work on Monday. At the conclusion of the public hearing this morning Lord Pearson said that as far as he could foresee hearings were now concluded but no doubt the parties would be prepared to assist the Court further if this proved necessary. I understand that Lord Pearson and his colleagues will now be considering their findings and concluding their report.

I am grateful to Lord Pearson and his colleagues for the urgency with which they are working. I am hopeful that the Court's report will be published early next week.

I am confident that the Court's report will give a full and objective analysis of all the relevant factors and I hope this will enable the parties to bring the dispute to an end. I shall be asking them to come and see me immediately the report is published.

Mrs. Castle

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that that statement takes us very little further, that it does nothing to allay our anxieties about what will happen over the next few crucial days, and in particular that he said nothing about whether and when troops might be used?

Is he aware that the Transport and General Workers Union is doing everything in its power to keep the temperature down and avoid extending the strike, that it has recommended dockers to move perishable cargoes, with certain safeguards, and that all those who are closely concerned with the docks believe that the use of troops would do more harm than good?

Can the right hon. Gentleman therefore give the House an assurance that there will be no question of introducing troops into the docks until there have been further negotiations on the basis of the report of the Court of Inquiry?

Mr. Carr

The Government, the employers and the union are certainly doing all they can to keep the temperature down. I hope the right hon. Lady will do the same. [Interruption.]

Mrs. Castle


Mr. Carr

As for the use of troops, the Government took emergency powers because they have an over-riding duty to sustain essential supplies and services for the community. When and if—and only when and if—it is necessary to use those powers in any way, the Government will not hesitate to do so, but we sincerely hope that it will not be necessary.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been and is in contact with Mr. Jones and other union leaders. They have made a statement which I very much welcome and which I hope will be followed by the local union organisation in the various ports. If it is, and if essential supplies are kept moving—to keep supplies going for the use of the community and in sufficient quantity also to give some reasonable chance of maintaining reasonable stability of prices—then certainly troops will not be used. However, the Government must maintain their duty—I want to make this clear to the House—to the community as a whole.

Mr. McNamara

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the statement which had been made by the leader of the T. & G.W.U. and the letter that went to the Home Secretary outlining the policy which the trade union would follow. Can he give an undertaking that the employers have been prepared and have shown themselves willing to accept terms such as those outlined by Mr. Jones as to the conditions under which perishable cargoes would be handled? Is the right hon. Gentleman bringing pressure to bear on the employers to agree that all profits, savings and so on go to recognised charities?

Mr. Carr

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, asking questions about matters for which I am not directly responsible. As I said, the Home Secretary is in close touch about this. We are most anxious to keep supplies going and certainly most anxious to ensure that nobody should gain profits out of the present situation.

Mr. Grimond

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware, as he indicated in his statement, that there has been considerable and welcome co-operation nom the dockers in the north of Scotland, particularly in moving supplies to and from my constituency? This is extremely important and should be acknowledged and extended. I understand that in most cases they are working without remuneration. On the other hand, there is anxiety about certain cargoes, including perishable ones such as fish and eggs, which in other parts of the country are moved by road and are not affected by the strike. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will bear this in mind.

Mr. Carr

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we shall bear that in mind and that we are appreciative of what is being done in many areas voluntarily. We very much hope that this can continue. However, it is just for the sort of vital reasons which the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned that the Government—I believe any Government—must maintain their right to keep those supplies going by whatever means may be necessary.

Mr. John Mendelson

Since it seems that the House will not be sitting when the Court of Inquiry reports, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to give an assurance that as courts of this kind normally do not propose precise figures but point in the direction of a settlement, he will insist that the employers change their view of negotiating, even though the strike may continue, so that the one rigid aspect may be removed from the difficult situation in which we find ourselves?

Mr. Carr

I could not demand of either side a promise that it would accept whatever came out from the inquiry. I am sure that with the establishment of a court of this weight, making its full objective analysis, the recommendations flowing from it will inevitably be given the gravest consideration by both sides. I shall certainly attach great weight to its findings. I trust that the parties will do likewise. As I have told the House, as soon as I have the report I will ask them both to come and see me.

Mr. Mikardo

Is the right hon. Gentleman completely happy about the fact that when the Court of Inquiry reports the House will be in recess? If the answer to that is "No", as I suspect it will be, would he lean over a yard to his right and whisper in the ear of his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and persuade him to arrange to lay a Motion before us a bit later today to ensure that the House will be sitting when the Court reports?

Mr. Carr

I am perfectly happy about the way things have proceeded [Interruption.] Of course I am not happy about the strike taking place, but I am happy about the way the Court of Inquiry is proceeding and the atmosphere in which it is proceeding. In the long tradition of this House we do not normally have debates on this sort of subject when courts of inquiry are reporting. If, by any misfortune, the findings of the Court of Inquiry do not lead to an end to the dispute, different circumstances will arise. The House would in any case in due course have to be recalled, if the dispute went on, within a relatively short time because the emergency powers would come to an end and might have to be renewed. As for next week, I do not believe that the chances of settling this dispute and bringing the strike to an end are prejudiced by the fact that the House may be rising tomorrow.

Mr. Adley

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a large number of dockers, certainly in the city of Bristol, will be the first to welcome the end of this strike?

Mr. Carr

I hope and believe that this is so, and I am sure that their feelings will be shared by all.

Mr. Bidwell

Would the right hon. Gentleman not agree, when the strike is over, and we will all welcome its end, that he shares some responsibility for the present situation because when we had the national delegate assembly it narrowly decided on the strike. Was that not an indication that the employers and workers were very close to reaching some sort of settlement and that a slight shift on the question of the basic rate of pay would probably have done the trick? Does he not further agree that if this inquiry points the finger that way this will have been one of the most needless strikes in history and he will have been responsible.

Mr. Carr

I do not intend to enter into that sort of debate now. When the strike is over if hon. Members feel that way they will no doubt find ways of saying so in this House.

Mr. James Hill

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on doing precisely what he has advocated the Opposition should do, namely, to keep the heat out of the situation. I am only surprised that on Friday—

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. This is a time for supplementary questions, not supplementary statements.

Mr. Hill

Is my right hon. Friend aware that on Friday the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) was completely for conciliatory action and that we all agreed that this was the best method? I am completely surprised as you, Mr. Speaker, must be that in Southampton this does not seem to have worked.

Mr. Carr

I hope it will.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Having for 15 years represented the third biggest dockland in Britain, might I ask the Minister if he is aware that the dockers regard the introduction of troops as provocative? Does he appreciate that this is because many of the older men have long memories, way back to 1911? Secondly, is he aware that if he wants to end the strike quickly, as I am sure we all do, he must bring some pressure, must lean on the employers—[Interruption.] I am afraid it is necessary to improve what is regarded by the dockers as a completely inadequate offer to meet their claim.

Mr. Carr

It would not serve the cause of ending this dispute if I commented on the merits of the claims in the offing. That is what the Court of Inquiry is analysing in an independent and full manner. We and all parties must await the findings of the Inquiry and, when they get them, attach great weight and consideration to them. I realise, with the hon. Member, the gravity of any decision to use troops. No one would wish to do so unless it were essential to maintain the proper flow of services for the community. I can only repeat that they would be used only if such a need arose, and I very much hope that it will not arise.

Mr. Orme

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the complacency which he has shown this afternoon? Members of the public will feel that the House has some responsibility in discussing the Pearson Inquiry because the Government took powers on Monday which have an effect on the lives of all the people. Surely the House should sit next week so that it can consider the response of the Pearson Inquiry and try to assist in bringing about a settlement. Does not the right hon. Gentleman feel that we should meet to discuss and pass an opinion on the Pearson Report?

Mr. Carr

I imagine that the House will soon be debating whether it should rise. I believe that past history under sucessive Governments and Ministers of Labour has shown that debating a controversial report about a dispute at the critical moment when the question of a settlement or non-settlement is in the balance is not useful or something which the House usually wishes to do.

Mrs. Castle

But would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that if the Court of Inquiry's report fails to produce a settlement, which we all hope will not happen, and the strike is further protracted, with a possible extension of it, we should not wait the limit of the 28 days before returning to renew the powers but should be recalled immediately?

Mr. Carr

That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House who has been listening to and considering what has been said.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the position of some of the smaller ports and the effect which a prolonged strike can have on them, which might be absolutely catastrophic financially, particularly for the port of Wisbech, in my constituency? Has his attention been drawn to the letter in The Times this morning from the port of Felixstowe, which is very serious reading? I fully endorse my right hon. Friend's resolution to ensure that essential services are provided to the general public, but does he agree that one of the most distasteful jobs which soldiers, sailors or airmen can have is to do work more properly done by men in civilian clothes?

Mr. Carr

The answer to all parts of what my hon. Friend has said is "Yes". No Government would wish to use troops in circumstances like these unless it were absolutely necessary to fulfil their duty to the community at large. But no Government should ever shirk that duty if, alas, it became necessary to do it.

Mr. Concannon

If and when the troops go into the docks, could some kind of message go out from here today that those troops are going in on orders from here and that the dockers could only make the situation much worse if they start shouting obscenities at the troops as they go in? Is not the best way of helping to send a message from here that the orders have come from this place and not elsewhere?

Mr. Carr

I am grateful to the hon. Member for what he has said. I certainly hope that the House of Commons as a whole could send a message to the country that we hope that the Court of Inquiry will lead to a rapid end to the strike, that we hope that meanwhile the dockers will voluntarily clear what goods are essential to the life of the community and that certainly if, alas, in any particular area that were not the case, the reluctant use of troops would indeed have the backing of Parliament, speaking for the people of the country.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

The Minister has quite rightly paid a tribute to Jack Jones and the Transport and General Workers' Union leadership in his appeal to the dockers to clear the perishable goods, and I think that in that the whole House would join. Is he aware, however, that if, as I hope will prove to be the case, the dockers decide to clear those goods, on the understanding that they get no pay and that the pay goes to charity, while not wishing to exacerbate the situation the dockers would feel very annoyed if, when they have cleared the goods, they then found that they landed on the market, exorbitant prices were being charged, housewives were being held to ransom and no action was being taken by the Government except for the Minister of Agriculture to tell them to eat peaches? That is not good enough.

My dockers say, "We find that every time the Government will insist when it goes against us, but they will not take any positive action when they are asked to stop the terrible charging and profiteering that is going on at the expense of the housewife." Will the Government please take action on this?

Mr. Carr

Let the House also make clear its will that there should be no profiteering out of this situation.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

It is happening.

Mr. Carr

It is impossible to control every detail in a situation of this kind. The best way of ensuring that prices do not rise unreasonably is to keep a flow of supplies moving. It is always shortage and fear of shortage which leads to prices rising, for whatever reason. The greater confidence that we can create that there will be a flow of essential goods, the greater step we shall be taking to ensure that prices remain as steady as possible in these circumstances. Certainly, all of us would wish to prevent any profiteering out of the present circumstances.

Mr. Delargy

The Secretary of State has said several times that the troops will be moved in only to ensure or to maintain the flow of essential services. Could he be a little more precise? What does he mean by "essential services"? It has already been pointed out that the dockers are handling—without taking any money for it, by the way—medical supplies and perishable goods. What are these other essential services for which the troops ought to be sent in?

Mr. Carr

It is impossible to define in list form off the cuff all essential supplies and services, but, obviously, medical supplies and whole categories of food are the most important things of all. At a later stage—but, I hope, at a stage which we shall not reach—one comes to the question of vital raw materials to keep industry going. We are a long way from that stage yet and I hope that we shall not get there. One has to regard foods, not only the most perishable foods, as being part of the essential supplies for the community. Let me repeat the hope, however—and I am sure that this is the wish of the whole House—that such supplies can be kept moving without any intervention.

Mr. Heffer

The basic issue in the dock strike is the question of an increase in the basic rate of pay. To return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. John Mendelson), if the inquiry comes down on the side of an increase in the basic pay, will the Minister use his good offices to lean on the employers to open negotiations and not remain in the ridiculous stance which they have adopted up to now of not discussing the question while the strike continues?

Mr. Carr

I have already said that I shall give great weight to the findings of the Court of Inquiry and that I hope both sides will also. I have also said that I am asking both sides to come to see me the moment the report is published. I do not believe that I should be encouraging the two sides to come to see me in the right spirit if in advance I said that I shall put pressure on one side or the other. Let me repeat, I shall put great weight on the findings of the Court of Inquiry when we have them.

Mr. James Johnson

Reverting to the earlier question by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon), will the Minister do now what he failed to do and confirm that Mr. Jack Jones, the leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union, has spoken in similar terms about the behaviour of his members in this connection, and does not he think that Mr. Jones has given excellent advice to his members?

Mr. Carr

I thought that I had done so already. I had intended to do so and, if I did not speak clearly enough, I will do so again. I thought I said that my right hon. Friend had been in contact, that Mr. Jones had replied, and that he and Mr. O'Leary, the national docks officer of the union, had issued the recommendation to their members to keep supplies running.

Mr. Crouch

There is considerable concern about the rise in the price of dead meat, and the price of beef has gone up by £1 a cwt. in the last few days. This has affected the price of live meat in live cattle markets. Whilst I know that it is difficult for the Government to exercise price control, this increase could become serious to people who live on limited incomes. Will the Minister consult his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food?

Mr. Carr

Yes, I certainly will.

Mr. Prescott

When the Minister appeals to the Transport and General Workers' Union and the dockers as a whole to consider removing perishable cargoes, will he take into account what has happened in Hull docks? Fruit retailers asked the dockers to move perishable goods and offered them extra money to be paid to charity for doing so; yet they were quite prepared to sell those goods at high prices. This is in open contempt of the price controls that the Government say they will impose.

Mr. Carr

I think that we should be well advised to leave these matters in local hands as much as we can and not try to raise temperatures about individual incidents. I have no doubt that there will be individual incidents which all of us may regret, and the fault will sometimes be in one place and sometimes in another, but the House could best serve the purpose of bringing the strike to an end by keeping these isolated incidents and difficulties in perspective of the whole.

Mr. Fitt

As the strike will affect ports in Northern Ireland, if it becomes necessary to employ troops in the docks in Northern Ireland, will the Secretary of State say whether those troops will be under the command of the Northern Ireland Government or of this House? It may be that the Northern Ireland authorities will wish to put a different interpretation on the emergency from that which the House puts on it.

Mr. Carr

First, there is not a state of emergency at the moment in Northern Ireland—[HON MEMBERS: "Oh."] I am speaking literally and in technical truth in the sense we are talking about here. Troops come under the order of the Commander, but in any case any questions which are the responsibility of the Government must be addressed to one of my right hon. Friends.