HC Deb 03 August 1972 vol 842 cc960-5
The Secretary of State for the Home Department, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robert Carr)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

The Government consider that the present industrial situation in the ports constitutes a threat to the essentials of life of the community which is sufficiently serious to justify taking immediate emergency powers to maintain essential services. They have, therefore, thought it right to advise the proclamation of a state of emergency under Section 1 of the Emergency Powers Act, 1920, as amended, followed by the making of emergency regulations under Section 2.

The regulations will come into force at midnight tonight. Copies will be available this afternoon. I shall shortly make an announcement about the arrangements for debating the usual Motions on the address and on the regulations. The regulations are almost identical with those made last February; the only significant change is a new regulation to facilitate the supply of medicines.

The use of the powers will be limited, as always, to what the essential public interest requires, and it is premature to say what orders may have to be made under the regulations.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

First of all, may I belatedly, since this is the first time I have met the right hon. Gentleman across the Dispatch Box, congratulate him, or perhaps commiserate with him, on taking on the job of Home Secretary?

This Government have a remarkable record of productivity in days lost in industry and in the production of emergencies; this is the fourth emergency which is taking place during their term of office. There was precisely one in the previous 15 years.

May I now ask the right hon. Gentleman the following questions? First, will he confirm that as far as possible the emergency regulations will not be used unless absolutely necessary, in view of the very good opportunity of an early settlement of the strike? Will he confirm that troops will not be used in the docks, unless it becomes absolutely critical. Secondly, may I ask about price control of essential foods, particularly in the light of sharp increases in prices of certain fruit and vegetables? Will he consider introducing maximum price controls for these commodities? Thirdly, will he say something about supplies to the outlying islands of Scotland as well as to the Channel Islands? Finally, does he feel that there is now a good opportunity for assurances to be given to dockers with regard to the security of future employment in container depots?

Mr. Carr

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her opening remarks, but not for those which immediately followed. I must remind the hon. Lady and the House that, although the number of days lost by strifles is very serious—there has at last been brought about a sensible downward trend in the number of strikes—for the first time for nearly a decade—in a matter to which the Donovan Commission drew particular attention as being extremely serious in terms of the welfare of this country.

In answer to the hon. Lady's questions, I certainly confirm unequivocally that no powers will be used unless, in the Government's opinion, they really are necessary to maintain essential services for the community. That, of course, applies to the use of troops.

Secondly, the emergency regulations contain powers for the control of prices, including essential food prices. We shall watch the situation carefully, and I shall consult my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture on that matter. (An HON. MEMBER "What can he do about it?"] It is easy for hon. Members opposite to talk about imposing price controls, as if this were easily accomplished. It does not always have the desired effect. To be effective, it requires a substantial administrative procedure and machinery, as the House knows. Therefore, it has to be considered very carefully before such a course is embarked upon. I will consider the matter carefully, and the powers are there.

Thirdly, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, the outer islands of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and so forth, are very much in our minds and will be a matter to which we shall pay particular attention.

On the hon. Lady's last point, I understand that the Jones-Aldington Committee met yesterday and is to meet again next Tuesday and that, apart from meetings, it is proceeding urgently with discussions. Certainly I hope that these meetings of the Jones-Aldington Committee will lead the union to feel able to recall its docks delegates conference in the hope that this will lead to an early return to work.

Mr. Orme

As the emergency arises out of the docks strike and the failure of the Jones-Aldington Committee Report to be accepted, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman when he expects that Committee to make a report and whether he has had any discussion with Mr. Jones and Lord Aldington on the progress being made? When is the House to have a report, even an interim report, on this dispute?

Mr. Carr

I should have thought the House had already had some reports on this dispute on a number of occasions. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment is in touch with both Mr. Jones and Lord Aldington. I am not absolutely sure, but I believe the latest meeting between them was as recent as this morning. I am not quite sure about that, but I think that may have been so. I am sure that when my right hon. Friend has something further to report he will do so. I am sure that we all want to give the maximum support and help to Mr. Jones and Lord Aldington and the members of their Committee in so clarifying the ideas they have in mind and the proposals they have put forward as to make them better understood and acceptable to both the dock delegates conference and the dockers themselves.

Sir Gilbert Longden

In addition to our own essential national interests, will any regard be had to the interests and livelihoods of our overseas suppliers in the Channel Islands and elsewhere?

Mr. Carr

Great hardship is caused to many people, not only to those resident in the United Kingdom, but a strike of this kind. For example, there is much hardship to suppliers in the Channel Islands, as we have seen, and potentially in Northern Ireland and much further afield. That is why we must all hope that everything possible will be done to bring this dispute to a conclusion.

Mr. Molloy

Regarding the problem of possible black marketeering and rising prices, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has time and again demonstrated that he would not recognise a food price rise if he saw one? Is there not grave danger that if there is a rise in prices and malevolent people try to attribute this to the dockers, that can only exacerbate the situation—[Interruption.] That is a demonstration of what I am talking about—and make the job of the Government, the TUC, the CBI and the dockers very difficult? Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore make a more demonstrative statement that the Government will not stand by and allow an unjustified increase in prices and any form of black marketeering?

Mr. Carr

We shall do all we can to see that prices are kept as low as possible. All of us would be foolish to imagine that we can have this kind of disruption, whatever controls we may have or use, without it having some effect on prices while it is going on. I hope the hon. Gentleman will practise all he preaches to others and avoid making exacerbating statements.

Mr. John Wells

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the point raised by the hon. Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams) about vegetables and fruit getting more expensive? This is the season of the year when British home-produced vegetables and soft fruit are available in the greatest plenty at the cheapest prices. If people are stupid enough to buy imported fruit and vegetables at this time they deserve to pay over the odds. Further, will my right hon. Friend look with some urgency at the Channel Islands supplies because if the Channel Islands situation is further disrupted future supplies of tomatoes will be reduced, and if supplies are reduced in future years as a result of this situation prices will indeed rise in 1973 and onwards?

Mr. Russell Kerr

End of commercial.

Mr. Carr

I hope the whole House and, indeed, a far wider audience will heed my hon. Friend's commendations on the merits of British home-grown fruit and vegetables. We are very much aware of the situation of the Channel Islands from not only the immediate but the longer-term point of view regarding the future supplies which my hon. Friend mentioned.

Mr. Atkinson

When the Home Secretary opens the debate on the emergency powers next week, will he inform the House in some detail of the kind of mechanism he proposes to use to control prices? Will he also tell us about the kind of organisation he has in mind for policing prices and the action he intends to take? In view of the announcement he has just made, will he now confirm that he will include these details in his speech when he opens the debate?

Mr. Carr

I hope I shall deal adequately with the regulations when I open the debate. I think the whole House must recognise two matters. First, we hope that this dispute will not be much longer extended. That must surely be our main hope. Secondly, we must accept that the establishment of a system of price control, if it is to be more than window dressing, really has to be backed by large administrative machinery and substantial enforcement measures which, by their very nature, cannot be established quickly. I will, of course, bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman has said, but I very much hope the dispute will be settled long before that.

Sir Bernard Braine

Is it not scandalous that, at a time when millions of people in the world are living just above the subsistence level, substantial cargoes of food are rotting in ships in the ports of this country? Is it not possible, even now, to persuade those who are responsible to make some exceptions in order that this food shall be brought in?

Mr. Carr

I note what my hon. Friend says, which I am sure will have a large measure of agreement. I believe the right way of dealing with this matter is to leave any approaches which may be made to specific issues at specific places when the matter can be put to the dockers and their representatives in concrete terms.

Mr. Bidwell

In view of the events in the National Industrial Relations Court, the reasons given for the ultimate release of the five dockers, and the bearing which their imprisonment has had upon consideration of the acceptance of the Jones-Aldington Report, does not the right hon. Gentleman think that some word of regret for those events, if not an apology to the dockers concerned and their wives, would go a long way towards alleviating the present situation having regard to the 18 abstentions and the exacerbation of industrial relations over the whole economy that that has caused?

Mr. Carr

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's remarks and judgment of the situation. In the interests of what we all desire, I will take a grip on myself and refrain from replying to the hon. Gentleman as I should wish to do.

Message to be considered upon Tuesday next.—[Mr. R. Carr.]