HC Deb 15 July 1974 vol 877 cc32-7
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Michael Foot)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the statutory regulation of employment of dock workers.

The scope of statutory regulation has scarcely been altered since 1947. Yet since then, but particularly over the past few years, there have been considerable changes in the ports industry, especially in the patterns of trade and shipping and cargo-handling methods. The results of these changes have had a serious effect on industrial relations in an industry historically bedevilled by insecurity of employment. Successive Parliaments have recognised that in the special circumstances of the docks there is a continuing need for control over employment arrangements. We must ensure that the coverage of that control is appropriate to modern conditions.

The safeguards in the present Dock Workers Employment Scheme do not apply at many ports and wharves which have grown significantly in both size and economic importance. So I propose to use powers under the Dock Workers (Regulation of Employment) Act 1946 and to consult the industry in the preparation of a draft of an order to extend the present scheme to cargo-handling activities at those ports and wharves handling third-party traffic not at present covered by the scheme. Any objections to the order will, as the Act requires, be considered by a statutory inquiry.

I also propose to start consultations on possible changes to the statutory definitions of "dock worker" and "dock work" to take account of the introduction of new cargo-handling techniques and other changes in the industry and on new arrangements for resolving disputes about the application of the scheme.

In reaching these decisions, I have had regard to the desirability of bringing the law and practice in this country into conformity with the provisions of the International Labour Convention No. 137 concerning the social repercussions of new methods of cargo-handling in docks.

Mr. Prior

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that that is a very depressing statement? No one can blame the Transport and General Workers' Union for pressing this development, but surely the House and the country could have expected anyone other than the right hon. Gentleman to stand against it. Is it not a fact that the ports to be affected have a very good record of service to both the customers and employees? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the statutory inquiry will be able properly to take into consideration the great contribution that these ports have made? Why, oh why, do we have a statement of this nature at this stage when it can do nothing to help our exports or our imports but is designed purely to please a small section of society not representative of the country as a whole? When will the right hon. Gentleman realise that he has responsibilities to the nation as well as to a small section of it?

Mr. Foot

I am not surprised that the right hon. Gentleman should have welcomed the statement in such a mean spirit. However, I would have thought that the rest of the House would not share that attitude. I am taking into account partly the recommendations of the Aldington-Jones Committee. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman thinks that its report was a minority report. In its final report the committee said: It is wrong that the scheme ports should continue to be exposed to unfair competition on terms and conditions of work from certain ports and wharves outside the scheme. In particular the Committee were at one in deploring the practice of casual employment which is still in evidence. That was one of the conclusions of the report. That was one of our reasons for proceeding in this way. Another was our desire that this country too should subscribe to the ILO Convention.

Mr. Richard Wainwright

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the long-term consequence of his action is likely to be the opening up of yet a further range of ports and harbours in this country outside the scheme in order to offer exporters and importers expeditious handling of their goods?

Mr. Foot

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman agrees with the assessment of the situation made by the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior). As the statute lays down, the inquiry will go into these matters and will take them into account. We have taken into account the representations made to us perfectly legitimately by people who have a lot to do with moving goods in and out of the country—the dock workers.

Mr. Mikardo

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his announcement will be warmly welcomed by the "bods" who shift the goods in both scheme and non-scheme ports? As they can make a greater contribution to our trade by their shifting of goods than can the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) by his words, will not my right hon. Friend be more concerned with their serious views than with the right hon. Gentleman's synthetic passions?

Mr. Foot

I hope that I have anticipated my hon. Friend's advice on these matters. However, I must say that I expected even the present Opposition to show themselves a little less mean spirited than that.

Mr. Peyton

Despite what he has said, does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that there will be considerable regret at this rather retrogressive step towards regimentation? Despite the recent form that he has shown, many of us expected something bettter of him than this constant obsequiousness towards antiquated Arks of the Covenant such as this. Would he again read the report of the National Ports Council on this subject—Mr. Jones is deputy chairman of the council and every view was available to it when it made its report—which says that the non-scheme ports are efficient? Will he bear that in mind and understand that the effect of this announcement will be once again to raise this country's costs?

Mr. Foot

What would raise this country's costs considerably would be to take the risk of having again in the docks the kind of troubles that occurred during the administration of the Tory Party.

Mr. Spearing

Does my right hon. Friend realise that in areas where the dock industry is declining his statement will be welcomed by large numbers of people? Does he recall that Lord Aldington, who was associated with Mr. Jack Jones of the Transport and General Workers' Union, was at one time closely associated with the Tory Party? Might it not be better for the Opposition to take a more measured view of what is a very difficult problem? Is my right hon. Friend aware that in some of the wharves in London there are container depots and stuffing agencies where people are employed and which are therefore taking work from others who might have been in the docks?

Mr. Foot

I will bear in mind what my hon. Friend says. It might have been wiser for the Opposition to have consulted Lord Aldington's report and possibly Lord Aldington himself before making their comments this afternoon.

Mr. Tugendhat

Will the Secretary of State say what representations he received from the dockers in the ports affected by his proposal? Does he not agree that the main pressure for this proposal has come from trade union headquarters in London and not from the "bods" referred to by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo) who shift the goods in the docks concerned?

Mr. Foot

I entirely repudiate that suggestion. Of course I have seen representatives of the dockers in London, but I have also seen many dockers who put the case to me even more forcibly than did their leaders.

Mr. Harry Ewing

My right hon. Friend's statement will be widely welcomed especially in Scotland where with the development of the North Sea oil industry the non-scheme ports have been cashing in on what is basically a national enterprise. The ports in Scotland, particularly those on the Forth estuary, accepted containerisation without question, with the consequent reduction of many of the registers in those ports. With the expansion of industry and the growth in exports the men found themselves betrayed because the exports were sent through the non-scheme ports. Does my right hon. Friend accept that the inquiry should be speedy and effective?

Mr. Foot

The inquiry will be a proper one, as is laid down in the Act, but that does not mean that this is not a clear declaration of the Government's determination to carry through the extension of the scheme on the basis I have set out. Of course we do not think this proposal solves all the problems of the docks. For that we have to carry through the much fuller programme of nationalisation, if I may mention that horrific word to Conservative Members, which has been so well understood by those who know the dock problems.

Mr. Fell

Since the right hon. Gentleman has become one of the most senior Cabinet Ministers of a Government which has recently been converted to a policy of asking everybody what they think about anything, will he take a survey of the dock workers at Yarmouth to see what they think about the scheme?

Mr. Foot

Of course, the inquiries have to take place, but that does not alter the intention which the Government have declared.

Mr. Prior

What is the point of the inquiry if the Government have already made up their mind? I always thought that the right hon. Gentleman believed in the sovereignty of Parliament. This is all a waste of time. We have a Government who decree what we have to do.

Mr. Foot

The right hon. Gentleman talks of the sovereignty of Parliament. He should have listened more carefully to what I said earlier. What I am doing is to proceed upon the basis of the powers given to me by an Act of Parliament, which is a perfectly proper parliamentary proposal. That Act lays down the limits under which consultation shall take place, but it gives a Minister the right to do exactly what I am doing and I am doing it because of representations from the people who do the job.

Mr. Heath

Is the Secretary of State saying that, given the opportunity, the Government will proceed with this policy regardless of any recommendations made by the statutory inquiry? If he is saying that, we should be told so clearly. What is the basis for the Government's policy when it is known perfectly well by all who deal with the industry that the non-scheme ports are efficient, that their industrial relations are good and that they are profitable, in complete contrast to those described by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), who said that the proposal would be welcomed by the declining ports, which have bad industrial relations and lack profitability?

Mr. Foot

The right hon. Gentleman seems to have passed his judgment on the matter without knowing anything about it and without any inquiry. I can assure the Leader of the Opposition that I never intended to do anything as foolish as what he attributed to me in his opening words. We are to carry out an inquiry exactly as laid down in Acts of Parliament, which give a Minister the right to make a general declaration of what he intends to do, subject to the holding of consultations about the details of the scheme thereafter. That does not alter the intention of the Government to proceed with the general extension which we are proposing and which I am empowered to do under Acts of Parliament.

Mr. Heath

The Secretary of State is avoiding the real issue. He said the Government are ready to discuss the details of their policy. That is not the purpose of a statutory inquiry. Its purpose is to enable all those concerned with the issues to give their views, and the inquiry may recommend against it. It is a question not just of discussing the details but of discussing the whole policy to be pursued by the Government.

The Secretary of State has reiterated that the Government will go ahead regardless of the recommendations of the inquiry, and that is deplorable.

Mr. Foot

I am acting on the basis of the 1946 Act. I am certainly acting in a much more creditable and supportable way than did the Conservative Government in 1971 over their Industrial Relations Bill when they said that they were going ahead with the principle of the measure whatever the consultations that followed. They had no power in any Act of Parliament to proceed with what they were doing. We are proceeding fully in accordance with powers given to a Minister in an Act of Parliament.

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