HC Deb 16 March 1970 vol 798 cc39-45

Mr. Marsh (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity if she will make a statement about the one day dock strike in view of its constitutional implications.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Frederick Mulley)

I have been asked to reply.

I understand that there are likely to be one-day strikes by some workers tomorrow in certain ports, including London; and that some other ports are likely to work normally.

The strikes apparently reflect a sense of anxiety on the part of workers about their future, and the Government understand this anxiety. But those behind the strikes also seem to be concerned about some of the proposals in the Ports Bill which is now in Committee.

I greatly regret that anyone should feel justified in striking for this purpose. It is, of course, no new thing for people to lobby hon. Members in support of their views. But those who are now attempting to bring the ports to a standstill as a means of bringing pressure to bear are, in fact, doing nothing but harm. Their action can only hinder those of us who are trying, as the Government are, to bring about a practical reorganisation of the major ports on the basis of public ownership.

The strikes will not help the men's cause and I appeal to those involved to show their sense of responsibility by working normally tomorrow.

Mr. Marsh

Would not my right hon. Friend agree that this is not so much a transport matter as a matter of industrial relations which, one would have thought, would have been answered by the Department of Employment and Productivity?

While there are usually two sides to any industrial dispute, would not my right hon. Friend agree that an attempt to use industrial action in this way to coerce Parliament on a Bill for specific Amendments—and on a Bill which is already before Parliament—is a complete negation of democracy and is as dangerous to the unions as to anybody else? Will he therefore make a statement that neither he nor his right hon. Friends will allow themselves to be coerced in this way; and will he give an indication of when such a statement will be made by them?

Mr. Mulley

I suggest that my right hon. Friend answered the first part of that supplementary question in the second part, in which he indicated that the subject matter was not unconnected with the Ports Bill, for which I have responsibility. For this reason, after discussing the matter with my right hon. Friend, she agreed that I should reply and take responsibility for this Answer.

As to when I will make a statement saying that I will not be coerced by unofficial strike action, I do not think that I need make such a statement; but, lest anyone be in doubt about that, I willingly make that statement now.

Mr. Michael Heseltine

I wish to question the right hon. Gentleman in relation to the transport aspects of the Bill. Would he agree that the Ports Bill has always been attacked by everybody except those who may be broadly classified as dock workers? [Interruption.] As the Bill has now been attacked by the dock workers, who are obviously determined to use it as a prelude for further industrial action in the docks, is it not time to accept that the Bill is acceptable to nobody and that it should therefore be withdrawn?

Mr. Mulley

That is a singularly unhelpful suggestion. In fact, the Bill has been widely welcomed, both inside and outside the port industry, by many leading employers among others. I think there is clear evidence of anxiety, which is not assisted by some of the statements made by the hon. Gentleman about the future of the port industry. There is wide misplaced anxiety in thinking that the Government are about to break up the dock labour scheme. In fact, it is an Opposition proposal that the Act should be repealed and I wish to make it clear that the preservation of the dockers' rights under that scheme will continue as now after the Bill becomes law.

Mr. Heffer

Would my right hon. Friend agree that it is necessary to get this whole matter into perspective? Is it not clear that some hon. Members are making a mountain out of a molehill?

Sir G. Nabarro

Don't you believe it!

Mr. Heffer

Is it not a fact that the opposition has come from only one branch, not the entire T. & G.W.U., and that it is not accepted by the executive of the union? On the other hand, is it not clear that if the dockers in one section of the industry feel so strongly that they want an extension of public ownership, then this is a complete answer to hon. Gentlemen opposite who are suggesting that the workers in the industry are not in favour of public ownership?

Mr. Mulley

I understand that it is true that the dockers concerned want a wider degree of public ownership. There are many ways in which they can, and indeed have, advocated their views without the threat of unofficial strike action. I confirm, as I understand it—and I had a talk this morning with the General Secretary of the T. & G.W.U.—that from that union's point of view the strike is unofficial.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

Is it true, as reported in the Press, that Mr. Jack Jones indicated to the Minister yesterday that the insertion of more workers' control in Clause 41 of the Ports Bill, which Parliament will be discussing tomorrow, could avert a strike which, as far as we are aware, will cripple London, Mersey and Hull tomorrow? Is this report true, and what reply did the Minister give?

Mr. Mulley

It is not true that I had any communication with Mr. Jack Jones yesterday. I asked him to come to see me this morning to discuss the situation. As I have said, he assured me that the strike was unofficial, and I urged him to ask all his members not to go on strike tomorrow. But I have given him no reply about a Clause which is properly for discussion in Committee tomorrow.

Mr. Michael Foot

On a point of order. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) has raised on a number of occasions the question of the acceptance of Private Members' Questions. Without in any way wishing to interfere with the position, which you have explained to us, Mr. Speaker, that you must choose whether Private Notice Questions should be selected, is not the question which we are now discussing hypothetical? Do not many of the questions asked today raise matters which are open for debate when the subject is before the Committee? Therefore, there is some question whether this Question should have been accepted as a Private Notice Question. In future, will it be possible to raise on the Floor of the House the prospect of strikes or threatened strikes, or threatened action against the public by employers, which frequently happens in our society, particularly when such matters are open for debate on a forthcoming issue?

Mr. Marsh

Further to that point of order. Is not this an indication of the fact that this is not a matter specifically affecting the Ports Bill? The Question which I asked, and which you, Mr. Speaker, accepted, was whether any group of workers is justified, whether on the Ports Bill or not, deliberately to attempt —[Interruption.] My hon. Friends must get used, in a democratic Parliament, to listening to things of which they do not approve. My Question was whether a group of people was justified in attempting, by industrial action, to apply pressure on a specific Bill. It has nothing to do with the Ports Bill as such.

Mr. Speaker

There is something in what the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) said in the second part of his point of order, that we cannot, on this Private Notice Question, debate an issue which should be taken in Committee on the Bill which apparently has given rise to this strike, official or unofficial. On the earlier issue, Mr. Speaker receives two, three or four applications from hon. Members every day to put Private Notice Questions. He disappoints many hon. Members by not accepting them. But he has been given the discretion of choosing whether such a question is important enough to be taken as a Private Notice Question. Parliament has given him that responsibility.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

Further to that point of order. I am obliged to you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me because I mentioned this to my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot). Suppose that I give you notice now that I have been told that there may be a strike next Tuesday which will vitally affect our export trade and that some of my dockers want to raise points which are troubling them. May I count this as a precedent and say to you that there is liable to be a dock strike next Tuesday and that the dockers want me to use the opportunity of a Private Notice Question, rather than putting a Question on the Order Paper, to voice their grievances on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Speaker

That is most ingenious. The hon. Gentleman had better try.

Mr. McNamara

Further to that point of order. I am a little alarmed at the impatience in the statements made by some hon. Members. I seek your guidance, Mr. Speaker. Surely any person, or group of individuals, is entitled, as citizens of this country, to come here and lobby members of a Committee about items in legislation which that Committee is discussing. That is their right. During the course of this Parliament, and many other Parliaments, people specifically affected by legislation —nurses, teachers and others—have petitioned hon. Members about matters affecting them which come before the Government or the House.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right, and the Minister said so in an answer. That is a quite different issue.

Mr. Ellis

Would my right hon. Friend now cast his mind back to the subject which we were discussing before the points of order were raised? Whatever the merits of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Marsh) said, would my right hon. Friend repudiate very firmly the hon. Member for Tavistock (Mr. Michael Heseltine), who seemed to be welcoming this strike as a manifestation of the fact that even the dockers were against the Bill? That is not true. It is a protest brought on by the hon. Gentleman's delaying tactics in Committee as much as anything else.

Mr. Mulley

I am glad to confirm that it is my intention to proceed with the Bill as rapidly as possible. With my hon. Friend's support, I hope to give ample manifestation of that tomorrow.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis

The Minister says that he will proceed with the Bill, which we accept. May I point out that we do not believe that any Minister should succumb to constitutional anarchy. Therefore, will he, on behalf of the Government, assure us that the Government will not be bludgeoned by Mr. Clive Jenkins who has suggested that in no circumstances will the Government be allowed to——

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is right off the topic of the Private Notice Question.

Mr. John Mendelson

My right hon. Friend has stated the Government's position on the legislation which is pending. Would he give an additional reply concerning the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity? I understand that this matter has had priority today because there is a strike situation. Is it not essential that the Government should be in touch with the men concerned, that discussions should take place without prejudice to the pending legislation, and that everything should be done by normal industrial conciliation to ensure that better relations prevail and that the strike does not take place?

Mr. Mulley

I was asked to reply because at the moment, and I hope that it will prove to be, this is a hypothetical strike. No strike has yet taken place, and I hope that as a result of this discussion today there will not be a strike. We are in danger of magnifying the importance of this issue. But, if the strike takes place, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the First Secretary will do her best to minimise its consequences, and, as I have already said, I had discussions this morning with the general secretary of of the principal union involved, Mr. Jack Jones, of the Transport and General Worker's Union to discuss the situation.