HC Deb 26 May 1972 vol 837 cc1797-800
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Maurice Macmillan)

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

A docks delegate conference of the Transport and General Workers' Union was held on 4th May. On 5th May the port employers were given one month's notice of a dispute.

The union claim is in three parts: first, that registered dockers should carry out the work of stuffing and stripping containers which is done outside ports at groupage depots; second, that paid holidays should be increased from three to four weeks; third, that fall-back pay —currently £20 per week—should be based on average earnings which are at present about £42 per week for registered dockers.

At a meeting of the industry's National Joint Council on Wednesday, 24th May, the port employers put forward new proposals which, I understand, relate to all three parts of the claim.

I met Mr. Jack Jones on 3rd May; since then I and my officials have had further discussions with him. We have also met the National Dock Labour Board, the CBI, all the employer interests involved and, at their request, the National Union of Railwaymen. The issues involved are very complex. They concern employers in other sectors of industry and workers other than dock workers—many of them also members of the Transport and General Workers Union.

I hope that when the National Joint Council meets next Tuesday, it will succeed in bringing its discussions to a point where the union's docks delegate conference can agree to withdraw the strike notice and the industry is thus given the time needed to examine the grave problems which underline this dispute. My Department will be ready to help in every possible way.

Mr. Prentice

The Secretary of State has made a statement on a situation of great urgency. It is urgent not only because of the possibility of a very damaging strike but also because of the situation in which the dockers find themselves. It is a situation in which over one-third of the jobs in the industry have disappeared over some seven years, against a background of heavy general unemployment. In this situation the dockers feel that they are fighting for their right to work. Against that background, is the Secretary of State aware that we on this side of the House welcome the active and constructive way in which he has been tackling this problem in the last few weeks and will certainly support him in any further steps he can take?

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's final remarks in which he said that the Department would be prepared to help further. Will he particularly bear in mind that these problems cannot necessarily all be solved between employers and unions and that there may be further steps needed from the Government? Will he especially consider the point, which has been put to him several times, that one of the things that may be needed is that the ports that are at present outside the dock labour scheme should be brought within its ambit, because there is evidence that trade is shifting to those ports and, therefore, this is causing extra unemployment in the established ports?

Finally, is it not clear that this difficult situation has been made more difficult in the last few weeks by the operation of the Industrial Relations Act? Is it not clear that the absurd antics that have taken place around the National Industrial Relations Court have not only been completely irrelevant to the solution of these complex and difficult problems but have made the task more difficult for those who have to try to find an answer to them?

Mr. Macmillan

No, I do not think that the operation of the Industrial Relations Act has in any way made the situation more difficult. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the problem is twofold: one aspect is the situation in the docks, the other is the situation in the unions. It is a question of all of us co-operating. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support in helping the unions concerned to see that the time which could be devoted to a sensible and constructive attempt to resolve genuine problems in the docks is not wasted by industrial action on an occasion the immediate cause of which may be relatively trivial compared to the major problems, although being symptomatic of those major problems, but which has caused a good deal of quite understandable emotion on the part of dock workers.

The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly correct in suggesting that the problem is that of a rapid rundown of labour in the docks. This problem must be solved in a way which does not in any way make our ports generally less competitive. I am happy to say that that is the point of view of all concerned in the dispute.

Mr. Atkinson

Has the Minister heard the widespread opinion that the Government are not only speaking with two voices but that they have now apparently become multi-lingual? How does he reconcile the statement made to overseas bankers by the Chancellor of the Exchequer with the statement made by the Prime Minister calling on the trade unions for talks to set up some sort of conciliation agency?

Further, how does he reconcile all that with the situation at home where, on the one hand, he is saying to the railwaymen that they must disregard the advice given to them by their leaders that their shop stewards must not be listened to and that there is the voice of the rank and file ralwaymen, whilst on the other hand, he is perpetuating the idea within the Transport and General Workers' Union that the workers, particularly in the docks, must not now ignore the words of advice given by their leaders nationally?

Mr. Macmillan

A good deal of what the hon. Gentleman has said is entirely irrelevant to the docks dispute. If anyone was confused, I thought he sounded a little confused. The employers concerned, the union leaders and my Department are attempting to ensure that the union leadership and the employers can get together over a period, not long delayed but long enough, to reach some sort of indication of the lines on which these problems can be resolved. This co-operation is in an attempt to prevent our endeavours to make further progress being frustrated by industrial action.

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