HC Deb 28 July 1972 vol 841 cc2229-40

11.4 a.m.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Maurice Macmillan)

With permission, Mr. Speaker. I should like to make a statement.

The National Docks Delegate Conference yesterday rejected the interim report of the Aldington-Jones Committee. As a result an official national dock strike started today.

The joint chairmen, Lord Aldington and Mr. Jack Jones, together with the members of their committee—working dockers, trade union officials and employers worked very hard to achieve a just and fair arrangement, which has been commended on all sides by those with the true interest of dock workers at heart.

I am sure the House will share my deep regret that the Docks Delegate Conference rejected these recommendations and that the ports are now stopped.

This strike will damage the interests of dock workers, for until it is over the men on the temporary unattached register cannot be offered permanent employment nor can the older and unfit dockers be offered the special severance terms.

The economic viability of the industry and the competitive position of British ports will also suffer; this must affect the capacity of the industry to offer secure long-term employment to dock workers

Many people will find it difficult to believe that the general body of dockers have fully understood what benefits have been rejected on their behalf by 38 delegates out of the total of 84 who represented them at the Docks Delegate Conference.

I have already discussed the situation with Mr. Jones and Lord Aldington. They are meeting today, and I hope means will be found to enable their proposals to be put into action and to get normal working resumed.

In the meantime, the Government are giving immediate consideration to the action they may need to take to protect the general interests of the economy and of the consumer.

Mr. Prentice

First, may I express on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends great disappointment that the Docks Delegate Conference rejected the Jones-Aldington Report by a majority of 38 to 28. Most of us who are concerned with the very difficult problems of employment in dockland, and who want to see a civilized way out of the situation, believe that the 28 who voted for the acceptance of the report were right in regarding it as providing an acceptable basis for a return to work.

But is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that no statement from him is realistic unless it recognises the great damage done to the situation by the operation of the Industrial Relations Act? Does he still not understand that the tragic and unnecessary events of the past week or so have produced a mood in which it is very difficult for moderate counsels to prevail?

I have two points on the immediate situation. The right hon. Gentleman referred in his statement to the meeting today between Mr. Jones and Lord Aldington. Will he assure the House that he and his Department will give any help they can in the present situation, particularly if any further help from the Government is needed to provide clearer safeguards than some parts of the report seem to provide on matters of employment? In particular, I ask him not to close his mind to a clearer statement on the question of unregistered ports, which is left in the Jones-Aldington report to the second stage of the Committee's proceedings. It might be helpful if something clearer were said about that at this stage.

It would be of some help if the right hon. Gentleman would now make a clear statement to the House that the Government have no intention of applying to the Industrial Relations Court for either a cooling-off period or a ballot, because if they bring the Industrial Relations Act further into the situation, not only will it be useless but it may further exacerbate an already grave process.

Mr. Macmillan

I assure the House, of course, that my Department and I will give every possible help we can to the work which Lord Aldington and Mr. Jack Jones are doing. As to clearer safeguards, the second part of the Jones-Aldington recommendations made it plain that in this dispute it was not possible for the national ports employers to go any further than they did, because they are not primarily the people concerned, and that that side of the recommendations should be settled by negotiation. That was accepted by the working dockers as well as everyone else on the committee. Certainly, I cannot do anything about the unregistered ports. That was not a matter at issue in the committee's report.

I do not accept that it is the Industrial Relations Act that has done the damage. If those who are preventing the dock workers from going back to work are doing so because of the Act, they are putting their political prejudice before the interests of the dock workers. Naturally, as the Government have always made plain, the Government regard recourse to the courts as the last resort, but I cannot give an undertaking that the proper use of the Act will not be made. I hope that we can manage to find a settlement through the existing machinery of the Jones-Aldington Committee, and that we can find a way out of our difficulties very soon.

Mr. Edward Taylor

As many of the dockers, apart from Communists, do not appear to know precisely what they are striking about and as the delegate conference decision was on a minority vote, will my right hon. Friend confirm that he has not closed his mind to the possibility, at the right time, of a secret ballot in which the result might be completely different? Will he also confirm that there will be no significant changes in the cost of the Aldington-Jones proposals while this strike persists, because otherwise this would be regarded by many as further confirmation that militancy can pay?

Mr. Macmillan

The difficulty that arises in this situation is that the position of the dock workers is clearly understood by a large number of people who have a great deal of sympathy. What they do not have sympathy with is a method of trying to solve by force, by blacking operations and other methods, the problem which the dock workers themselves and their representatives on the committee have negotiated. It is this that makes it plain that either the union or the law must prevent the use of force to settle a dispute which should be settled by negotiation. I have certainly not closed my mind to any possible methods of achieving this result.

Mr. James Johnson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that people like me in ports such as Hull, think that he is purblind, in fact that his vision is opaque, when he gets up and says that the Industrial Relations Act is not a factor in this? May I tell him, as a Humber M.P., that the biggest single factor is that of these unregistered ports and, although he may deny any obligation, he must turn his mind to this factor, which affects the whole attitude of people towards the present situation?

Mr. Macmillan

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation may be, it is quite clearly wrong to attempt to settle this type of matter by the use of force, and this is what is happening. This was made perfectly clear in the judgment of the National Industrial Relations Court. This is an attempt to preclude a settlement by negotiation by creating a situation where that negotiation could no longer apply. This is a situation which cannot be allowed to persist in a civilised country.

Mr. Tom King

Did my right hon. Friend hear the answer given this morning on radio by an independent observer who was asked which would be the first section of the community to suffer from this stoppage? The answer given was that it would be the dockers themselves. Is it not tragic that in driving away yet further orders for work from these ports, where the majority of dockers are employed, they will add to the tragic and difficult situation which we are trying to solve?

Mr. Macmillan

It is true that port employers, the union executive, the working dockers on the committee and a large number of other people, including those who represent dockland constituencies, have tried to find a solution to this longstanding problem. Most of those concerned would agree that the Aldington-Jones recommendations are a basis for settlement. The tragedy is, as my hon. Friend says, that a few people have increased the natural emotion that dock workers feel and created a situation which makes it very hard to put this solution into action.

Mr. Mikardo

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman, not in any hostile way, to answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. James Johnson) and not to ride off on a different point? Does he not realise that this business of the unregistered ports, which to people outside may appear to be a secondary matter, is perhaps the greatest cause of irritation to the dockers in the registered ports, because they believe, with some justification, that port employers outside the national dock labour scheme are black-legging in a way in that they are getting profits from contracting out of obligations which other employers, their competitors, have undertaken?

May I ask him to accept that no other single action would conduce more to a reconsideration and a possible acceptance of the Aldington-Jones proposals, which we should all like, than doing something or making some move about the unregistered ports?

Mr. Macmillan

The situation in the context of the Aldington-Jones recommendations of the unregistered ports is totally irrelevant in fact.

Mr. Mikardo

Go back to the docks.

Mr. Macmillan

It may be relevant in emotion, but it is totally irrelevant in fact, because the first recommendation of the Aldington-Jones Report is that the temporary unattached register be abolished for an agreed period. Therefore there is full-time work for all dock workers within dockland. The second recommendation is that there should be negotiations about the vexed problem of the stuffing and stripping of containers and working in groupage depôts. That too was accepted. The third recommendation is that there should be special severance arrangements, and the Govern- ment have agreed to provide money for these, for this interim period. Therefore the contribution or otherwise made by the employers in the unregistered ports is in this context totally irrelevant.

Mr. Peter Rees

In view of the great service which the unregistered ports are giving to the community, will my right hon. Friend please assure the House that he will give no support whatever to any move to prejudice their present position?

Mr. Macmillan

The situation that we have been trying to create is to give time for the second stage of the Aldington-Jones negotiations which, on all sides it is accepted, will lead to a situation whereby dock workers will have regular employers like other people in industry and where the need for a temporary unattached register, or anything of the sort, will disappear—where we can get the regularity and security of employment in dockland which it has been seeking for 200 years or more.

Mr. Pardoe

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that while we may all be disappointed, as he is, at the refusal of the dockers to accept this report, we can hardly be surprised in the present situation which is clearly the worst possible occasion on which to bring reason to bear on the results of containerisation? Will he say whether the Government gave thought to the social effects of containerisation when they first came into office, and will he further say why it is only now that we have a report dealing with this problem? Is this not an example of gross miscalculation and lack of preparedness on the part of the Government?

Mr. Macmillan

No. I think that is a monstrous suggestion. Containerisation has been a problem which was anticipated by our predecessors in Government and ourselves. What was not anticipated by anyone, including the unions and all the experts, was the pace at which these changes would take place. What was also not anticipated was the effect they would have on movements from one port to another as the increasing rapidity of containerisation required larger and larger ships which in certain circumstances cannot get into certain ports.

Mr. Orme

Will not the right hon. Gentleman agree that he is asking free collective bargaining to take place on this report—and no one denies that these are difficult negotiations—against the background of last week's events and the Industrial Relations Act? Since it is absolutely clear that he will not use the Act for a ballot or a cooling-off period, will the Government now recognise that in the interests of good industrial relations the Act should be suspended—

Mr. Skeet


Mr. Orme

—and that industrial relations be allowed to take place in an atmosphere where there is conflict, but where there can be settlement? Can he answer this important question? There were 20 abstentions in the vote. That means that those people were not against the report. Why did they not vote for it? The reason is in the events of last week.

Mr. Macmillan

In fact, there were 18 abstentions. Why they abstained is not my affair; I do not know. But there were alarming militant demonstrations outside which may have had something to do with it. I very much wish that the hon. Gentleman had not made his suggestion. I took part in a television programme last night with some of the most militant dockers, who made it perfectly plain that it was not the Industrial Relations Act to which they were objecting; they said so in public. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members opposite who have the interests of dockland at heart will separate whatever struggle they may choose to carry on against the Act from the present position in dockland and will not encourage dock workers to stay out because they object to the Act but will encourage them to go back to work and to deal with the situation in dockland.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

As hon. Members opposite claim that it was the imprisonment of the five men last week which caused this trouble, has the attention of my right hon. Friend been drawn to the poster saying, "Five trade unionists are inside", published by the London Port Shop Stewards and printed by Briant Colour Printing "during their work-in in June 1972"? Does not this confirm what the Economic League and the Daily Telegraph have been saying —that this has been a plot based on evidence which has been available for six months, that the militants intended to cause a national dock strike, and that they were merely looking for a sham excuse?

Mr. Macmillan

If the leaflet was printed in June, it shows, I think, some intelligent contingency planning which presumably had certain things in mind. It was, as far as I can judge from the date, printed when I was discussing some of these problems in an international context at the International Labour conference in Geneva.

Mr. William Hamilton

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that there will be a considerable degree of disappointment and incomprehension that a scheme approved by such unlikely characters as Jack Jones and Lord Aldington—"unlikely characters" in terms of political and other views—is not acceptable? Does he not agree that the atmosphere has been poisoned by the Industrial Relations Act and all which has flowed from it?

The right hon. Gentleman talked about the use of force. There are very temperate trade union leaders and other workers who regard the Industrial Relations Act as a measure of force, that the Government have used the courts for party political purposes and that unless the Government realise that and agree to make some modifications to the Act there will be a continuation of this kind of trouble not only in the docks but else-where? Will the right hon. Gentleman give consideration to that and be big enough to admit that this is a factor in the situation? Meanwhile, what will he do about the introduction of emergency powers to protect perishable commodities now standing at the ports?

Mr. Macmillan

I have already said in my statement that the Government will be giving urgent consideration to the need to protect the economy and the consumer. As to the rest of the hon. Gentleman's question, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, myself and other members of the Government have made it plain that, at the proper time, we are perfectly prepared to consider representations about the workings of the Act. What we are not prepared to consider is any weakening of the Act which allows irrational and illegal forces to operate successfully.

In the circumstances of the last few weeks, the men who were put in prison were carrying out acts which were deplored by their union officials and, indeed, by right hon. and hon. Members opposite. All that the Act says is that if a union cannot stop this the law should. Most people would not, I think, find that an unreasonable proposition, considering that there was general agreement that these actions were, by any definition of the term, a totally unfair industrial practice.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

May I revert to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward Taylor)? Is my right hon. Friend aware that those of us who represent areas where earnings for a full working week are frequently substantially below the level of the dockers fall-back pay for no work at all find the offers of financial assistance on behalf of the taxpayer in the Jones-Aldington Report somewhat excessive and might not be altogether regretful if, in view of the rejection of the report, those offers were withdrawn? In any event, can my right hon. Friend assure the House that in no circumstances will these offers be extended and increased?

Mr. Macmillan

There is no question but that the Jones-Aldington proposals can be accepted by the dock workers on a resumption of work. It is not physically possible to implement them otherwise. Government assistance was limited to severance payments for voluntary severance for the older and unfit workers in the docks who, particularly in London, preponderate. The main object was to give secure employment in dockland to young, fit workers on a more permanent basis. I would point out that in the rundown of the docks there has been no question of anything but voluntary severance. I sincerely hope that right hon. and hon. Members opposite will do everything they can to persuade the dock workers to accept the Jones-Aldington Report as a basis for negotiation.

Mr. Kinnock

Following the question of the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg), will the Secretary of State look under the bench to see whether there are any "reds" there making some intelligent contingency plan, as he said earlier? Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that, as a result of his failure to answer the questions of my hon. Friends the Members for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. James Johnson) and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo), he shows an abysmal lack of understanding of the context in which the dockers are taking action? Does he admit that his compliments to Jack Jones are disingenuous and cynical in view of the fact that he is prepared to be a member of a Government which will not do anything to stop the system whereby Jack Jones, in spite of his great public service, has been kicked in the teeth this week by the decision of the Law Lords?

Mr. Macmillan

On the last point, Mr. Jones made it perfectly plain last night that the union of which he is the chief employee, if I may put it like that, is responsible for the delegated powers of its shop stewards, of whom there are 30,000. He also said that it was difficult, in a democratically elected society such as the Transport and General Workers Union, to control those shop stewards. I accept both points. What I do not accept is that that proposition justifies shop stewards in taking illegal action and conducting unfair industrial practices without the possibility of their being prevented from doing so either by the union or by the law.

Mr. Redmond

May I follow up the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Tom King) and two hon. Members opposite about the small ports? Surely the terrible history of strikes in dockland, particularly at the big ports, has been driving business to the smaller ports because shippers cannot rely on them? Is it not a fact that we cannot improve on the Jones-Aldington Report and that we would not have had that report but for the action of the National Industrial Relations Court?

Mr. Macmillan

What we are trying to do is to ensure that the larger ports, the ports which have a long history of difficulty, become fully competitive and can share with the unregistered ports a capacity to compete with the increasing ability of the continental ports to take deep sea traffic away from us.

Mr. Clinton Davis

Is not the Minister suffering from hallucinations when he suggests that the Industrial Relations Act has nothing to do with it? Where has he been in the last few days? Has he been, for example, to Midland Cold Storage in my constituency where he would have seen USDAW members protesting with the dockers against what was happening? Is it not also clear that what has been done by the Prime Minister, the national disaster sitting next to the Minister, in the last few days, is to give even greater irritation and pre-plexity to a very difficult situation? Would he not now make a dramatic and conciliatory move by saying that now and not at some time in the future the Government will consider changes in the Act?

Mr. Macmillan

We have made it perfectly plain that the Government are prepared to consider changes in the Act if they are properly put forward in due course. What we are not prepared to do is to give way to the sort of pressure that the hon. Member is trying to put on us. I hope that it is not the Act which is holding up a settlement in dockland, because if it is it means that those who are advocating this have the political interest of repealing the Act more at heart than they have the working interest of the dock workers.

Mr. Prentice

May I put a further point to the right hon. Gentleman? We all hope that the talks between Jack Jones and Lord Aldington later today will provide a basis for a speedy return to work. Will he carefully reconsider what he said about unregistered ports—that they are not relevant? They are very relevant, as was recognised by the Jones-Aldington Report itself, in which it was said that part two of their consideration would be to consider this question. So obviously it is relevant to the level of employment available in dockland. Would the right hon. Gentleman make some declaration of intent which might lead the Government and the other parties to bring these ports within the dock labour scheme? Some declaration now, today or in the next few days, could be very helpful in this situation.

Mr. Macmillan

I am very anxious to do what I can to help, and the right hon. Gentleman, indeed, has shown that he too, is trying to help in this difficult situation, but I do not think that the last part of that suggestion is very helpful. The Jones-Aldington Report makes it plain that this was one of the issues which should be considered in the period of five months designed to achieve quiet consideration, and I think it should be left there. I do not think we should select one part or another of the suggestions for prior consideration of those put forward in the report itself. This was accepted by the dock workers, including the working dockers on the committee.

Back to