HC Deb 25 July 1974 vol 877 cc1978-88

11.34 p.m.

Mrs. Lynda Chalker (Wallasey)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing this Adjournment debate on a very important subject. First, even at this late hour I remind the House that the people of Merseyside and, indeed, people throughout the country, are most concerned to see the Port of Liverpool fully at work.

Secondly, we have suffered difficulties over a long period for a variety of reasons, but particularly with the grain terminal, and it seemed to me high time—finding that there were no references to this matter in the documents in this House—that it should be discussed here.

Thirdly, I am concerned that the work of the Port of Liverpool should be encouraged, that the existing port users continue and expand trading through the port, and that the port companies use the port for the development work for which it has been designed.

At the outset, let me say that my sole intention is to see more jobs, more prosperity and greater happiness for the people of Merseyside through the full working of this port. Whatever the history of the port, the present non-use of the Seaforth grain terminal is a waste of good money and good men, discouraging incentive and wasting a lot of good new business coming to this country from abroad. Other industries are now being located far from the North-West, for this reason.

It was back in January 1972 that discussions on the manning of the Seaforth grain terminal began. This was prior to the completion of the terminal. They began with the earnest hope that the discussions on manning and wages in the terminal would be agreed by the date that the terminal could commence working. Already in 1971 there was a White Paper from the previous Conservative Government which reviewed the progress made since the Rochdale Report in 1962. It said: The Government expects the ports to put themselves in a position where they can provide the services essential to the country's economic prosperity both efficiently and profitably. That is what the industry, the port authority and the dockers want to see. But it also sums up why two years of non-operation of the terminal—built at a cost to this nation of £12½ million—is a shocking waste, a great sadness and a blight on the North-West.

The obvious wastage in this terminal is a discouragement not just to present-day users but to future millers and animal feeding manufacturers. Wherever the fault lies, I am not in a position to apportion blame, nor am I concerned to do so, because it is one of those famous cases in which people all round are a little to blame and it is time we came together to resolve this matter. That is my reason for raising it in the House.

When I first raised the question in Parliament last May I was told by the Minister that conciliation officers would be available as soon as they were needed. That was on 24th May last. The officers of the Department of Employment were ready to go in and help if requested to do so. I believed then that it would be necessary, from representations made to me from all parts of industry and, indeed, from people working in the port and people who hoped to work within the grain terminal.

It is therefore a great help to know that the conciliation team began its work about 10 days ago. I know that the team has a very difficult task ahead of it, and one in respect of which we can only hope that common sense will prevail, because there is a great deal more at stake than just the sheer working of the terminal.

The fact that conciliation has begun, however, does not obviate the need for a debate tonight; it strengthens my earnest request to Her Majesty's Minister to make sure that we succeed, as never before, to eliminate the ills of the past two years, to bring the terminal on line, and to bring jobs and greater prosperity to Merseyside.

It is necessary to look briefly at the efforts made to agree terms of working, so that at no stage in the future do we get ourselves into this precarious situation.

There have been three major issues in this dispute between the Transport and General Workers Union—through its Liverpool Grain Committee—and the port employers. The first concerned the union requirement that all staff workers should be registered dock workers, under the National Dock Labour Scheme. This sophisticated new terminal is computerised. There are buttons to be pushed by computer operators. It requires clerical staff.

At first, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company could not see the need for registered dock workers to do this work. After negotiations with the National Joint Council it was agreed that in this case and this case alone—not setting any precedents for any other part of the port. or any other port—the clerical workers on the computer side of the grain terminal should be registered dockworkers I could never see myself as a dock worker in the normal sense of the word, but I imagine that even I could push the buttons on that computer. I hope that people are soon doing that job so that we secure the productivity that is so desperately needed.

After references to the negotiating body of the National Joint Council there was a recommendation of special negotiations on wages, manning and hours. But after nine joint meetings there was no further agreement. The Mersey Docks and Harbour Company assessed that the operation of the terminal required two 7-hour shifts of 32 men per shift to achieve maximum profitability. It believed that was the correct figure in the interests of the port if it was to push up throughput and bring additional benefit to the Merseyside docks. The union claimed at that time that there should be three shifts on a much reduced working day, each manned by 120 men, requiring 360 men in total. I cannot understand that, and even Lew Lloyd could not explain it to me when I asked.

The outcome of the work by the National Joint Council assessors was to set a total of 116 men to cover two 7-hour shifts with additional men on duty for cleaning and store keeping. The management accepted that recommendation. The union at that stage could not because it felt a drastic loss of jobs was involved. It suggested that 160 men were needed on a 25–30 hour week, with rotational manning through the terminal. Again there was an impasse and so the story has gone on. The union first rejected average pay of £61 and since then has maintained that £67 is not acceptable for a 35-hour week. Compare that, however, with the average wage of £55 a week for the other dock workers in the port, and with £45 a week for the mill workers who will benefit from the terminal.

The answer to this problem seems to lie in a lack of confidence among dockers in the future. No matter which Government are in power there seems to be among many men the feeling that things can never work out. I want to see that attitude go.

Apart from the investment and the mounting bills incurred in the terminal, the country is spending money on food subsidies for bread. It is subsidising the millers, yet the millers cannot make a profit because the terminal is not working. When it began its building in the 1960s the millers were planning for a rundown of the old ways of working. They were planning to bring to the terminal ships of up to 75,000 tons carrying animal feedstuffs and grain ships up up to 34,000 tons with a cargo for milling. These ships cannot come into the South Docks and Birkenhead Docks. The ships have to go to Gladstone Dock to be unloaded into barges. The lightened vessels can then use the South Dock and Birkenhead. There are added problems in the South Dock, because the docks are silting up, which means continual dredging manoeuvres. Yet all this time the perfectly good Seaforth grain terminal stands idle at a cost not just of its building but of its future and of the job prospects for the men.

The other tragedy of the situation is that goods are now going into Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Tilbury, and are being moved from the large tonnage ships on to the small ones so that they come up to Liverpool as heavy loads on the road network, using petrol and diesel fuel that we can ill afford, because we cannot use a deep berth terminal built for the purpose. It is an utter waste that we should be going on in this way.

It may not be that the dockers, millers and industry suffer in 1974, but their sons leaving school in five and ten years' time will suffer from the lack of conciliation. Already, major millers say that they cannot operate as profitably in this country as they can in other countries, because they have to bring in small loads. Kelloggs and Allied Mills, which have built mills alongside the Seaforth grain terminal, have those mills lying idle—further investment wasted over the past months.

But it is not just the dockers who suffer directly. It is also the millers and bakers, animal feedstuff producers and the farmers—and that means every one of us, right down to the consumer in the end in terms of prices. Whereas Hull, Avonmouth and Tilbury can adequately supply their surrounding areas, Liverpool is unable to do so and cannot feed Belfast and Scotland with the grain and animal feedstuffs required for economic operation, because it cannot handle the quantity at present. Liverpool is importing large tonnages from Tilbury because it cannot, with its present docking arrangements, take in the quantity it requires.

During recent months I have spoken with trade unionists, management, consumers, port authorities, river pilots and industrialists to try to discover why the situation has had to go on and on and on. It seems to me that there has been intransigence on both sides. The arguments continue for a 25-hour or 30-hour week, but it would not be economic to run the grain terminal on those hours. Now the Liverpool Grain Committee, although agreed on £67 for a 35-hour week, still insists on a bigger labour force than the National Joint Council recommended. It is insisting on 148, whereas the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company had agreed to 116–52 more than were considered economic when the negotiations started.

The conciliation machinery is now being used. It is a tragedy that it was not seen that the National Joint Council machinery had been exhausted before this date. If one is trying to get something moving in industry, two years sitting around a table is an awful long time to discuss it with the same group of people going over the same issues.

Industry, whether publicly or privately owned, has a duty to serve the public, to produce goods at the lowest economic price while maintaining technological progress. But none of that will happen in the animal feeding stuffs industry and milling in the North-West until that Seaforth grain terminal is working properly.

I think I understand very well the deep-seated fear of technological change that many of the dockers have. They are terrified not only of the loss of their jobs, because with modern technology not so many men are needed, but of what will happen in the future. Here I feel that the dockers could have been taken a good deal more into the minds and planning of the companies in the area. That is something that I hope will come.

This brings to mind the famous Churchillian saying that jaw-jaw is better than war-war. I change it to say that this seems to me to be a case of jaw-jawing because otherwise we shall gnaw-gnaw away at the heart of something that is vital to Merseyside and everyone in the area.

The dockers talk of needing wage rises in the future. I hope that they, like the rest of us, know that there is not a bottomless pit, and that unless an employer can run a viable business they cannot have higher wages. The Mersey Docks and Harbour company lost £2½ million in 1973 and £1.8 million in 1972, and has received grants from the Government of £2 million for cargo handling. But the dockers are only going to benefit when they see full working.

I have a letter from the Port of Liverpool's managing director, who says: We remain prepared to look at any reasonable proposals which will lead to the opening of the terminal or any arrangement which is mutually acceptable which will lead to this end. That remains so. Mr. Lew Lloyd, the leader of the shop stewards, told me on the telephone yesterday, "But they will not talk to us because they will not go over new ground."

I think the time has come when they cannot go over new ground. This is why conciliation has at long last come. There are those who argue that there is no desire amongst the dockers for a settlement. I am certain that amongst the vast majority of the men of Merseyside there is a definite desire to settle this matter, to get the grain terminal works, to benefit from it, and to increase the profitability of the animal feeding stuff manufacturers so that they can expand and provide more, not less, work.

The views are common to all of us. I find that many of these men say, "We get told things". They want to participate in the decision which is being made about their future. Why can they not ballot on the terms negotiated by their leadership, whom they may elect or appoint or however they do it—no one has been able to explain to me quite how the committee came into being or was elected. Why should not the management allow mid-week meetings, when the men could hear all sides of the story? Sunday morning meetings, when only 500 out of 7,500 dockers are present, are not the way to communicate fully with the men.

Perhaps the conciliation team, as well as persuading the dockers that the offer now being made to them is reasonable, could get the management to agree that more time needs to be spent on building up good relations and taking away the fears, and that the two sides need to come a great deal closer together. When Seaforth is successful, further negotiations on the future can succeed. Until the grain terminal proceeds successfully, the dockers have no assurance of the good will and understanding that there can be in this industry.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)

Order. I thought that the hon. Lady had agreed that the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) should have time to speak. Three-quarters of the adjournment debate has now gone.

Mrs. Chalker

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am drawing to a close. I know from discussions I have had that the men are willing to work, and want to work. My plea to the Government is that they should bring as much pressure as possible to bear, in the nicest possible way, upon the conciliation officers to bring the men together. We are all aware of the responsibility to bring men and management together to work, and it is on the Government that that responsibility must now lie.

11.55 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) on raising this important issue in the House tonight and upon her cogent argument. I have to declare an interest, in that the terminal is in my constituency. It is part of the great modern Seaforth Dock complex, which was so recently built properly to cope with this sort of import. I have to declare another interest in that I was closely connected with the civil engineering firm which built it.

The House will not be surprised if I say with some pride that this is the most efficient building and dock of its type in the world. It has been internationally acclaimed for its clever design. It is purpose-built. All of this makes the fact that it has been idle for two years a tragedy. How can the country prosper when we let our resources rot like this?

We can tackle our present problems only by increased efficiency and productivity. Here is a building and equipment which can enormously increase the efficient handling of grain as compared with the conventional system of grain handling. As with any improvement of this sort there will be fewer people employed. The two extremes for the number of men to be employed, as stated on the one hand by the unions and as stated by the dock company on the other, have gradually got closer while negotiations have continued. Any losses will be compensated by the associated jobs which will result from increased productivity.

It is for the unions and management to find the solution. I do not believe that this is impossible. I do not believe—this is the crux of the matter—that the two parties realise the extent to which, by their failure to agree, they are damaging the industrial future of Merseyside and holding themselves and this country up to ridicule in the many countries whose ships and people trade through the Port of Liverpool. I hope that, thanks to my hon. Friend's raising this vitally important matter, the message will go out from the House tonight, to management and unions, For God's sake, stop these squabbles, get the matter settled and get down to the job that can be done in these efficient buildings and this efficient dock".

11.57 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. Albert Booth)

I welcome the opportunity of this debate to set out the background to the breakdown of negotiations for the working of the Sea-forth grain terminal and to explain the rôle of my Department and the steps we are currently taking to obtain a solution to the outstanding problems. I will follow the example of the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) in not seeking to apportion blame. I have the added reason that the proper rôle of my Department is conciliation, and this would be hindered if we were seen to take sides when we seek to bring about an agreement between the two sides.

The Seaforth grain terminal is part of the Royal Seaforth Dock complex which covers 500 acres of land reclaimed from the Mersey. Other facilities at the dock include terminals for containers, for meat and for timber. The project has been financed entirely by Government loans and grant. The cost at completion is likely to be about £45 million.

The grain terminal was the last of the terminals to be built and was ready for partial use in July 1972. It was fully completed by the end of that year. The terminal provides the opportunity for Liverpool to recapture its pre-war position as one of Europe's leading grain ports. Modern machinery and a silo holding 100,000 tonnes means that the very biggest bulk grain carriers will be able to discharge and that a very fast turnaround can be achieved. The existing grain docks at Merseyside can handle only smaller vessels. Inadequate facilities means that the rate of discharge is slow.

Negotiations on arrangements for working the terminal have so far been unsuccessful. The port's Grain Committee, which is the negotiating body for all industrial relations matters connected with the grain trade affecting registered dock workers, began discussions in July 1972. It would be an under-statement to say that this was not an ideal time to contemplate the introduction of new machinery which apparently reduced employment opportunities in the port. The three-week national docks stoppage in that month was caused partly by the stupidities of the Industrial Relations Act but also, as became apparent once the Official Solicitor had appeared, by the real concern felt by dockers at the surplus labour situation which then existed.

Although the previous administration accepted one of the recommendations of the Joint Special Committee on the Port Industry and introduced a special severance scheme under which over 8,000 registered dock workers left the industry, rank-and-file fears about future job prospects still remained. I do not find this surprising in an industry whose labour force has declined by almost a half in the past seven years.

Negotiations initially foundered on the question whether all workers at the terminal should be registered under the Dock Workers Employment Scheme. The issues were complicated and arose primarily because of the port's local definition of "dock work" for the purposes of the scheme. I do not propose to dwell on the various attempts to reach agreement on the matter.

Problems such as these are a good example of the reason why my right hon. Friend announced to the House on 15th July that he proposed to start consultations on possible changes to the statutory definitions of "dock work" and "dock worker". If the previous administration had not sought to erect and preserve the unnecessary and harmful legal apparatus of the Industrial Relations Act, but had turned its energies to tackling problems of real concern to particular industries, today's debate might not have been necessary.

It was therefore not until this February that the Grain Committee started serious negotiations on the crucial questions of manning, pay and hours of work at the terminal.

After visits to the grain terminal by two assessors accompanied by local full-time union officials and the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company grain terminal management, the NJC ruled that a total of 116 men should be employed at the terminal in two shifts of seven hours, and that 51 men should be employed on each shift, plus 14 men on permanent day duty for cleaning and storekeeping. The question of rates of pay was not considered, as the NJC felt that there had been insufficient negotiation at local level.

At the present point of time, the differences between the two sides are that the employers are offering employment for 116 men on 35 hours per week, and the union is claiming 148 men on 30 hours per week. Whilst there is also a difference between the two sides on whether the jobs should be rotated throughout the labour force, agreement seems possible on the question of rates of pay.

I should now like to turn to the rôle of my Department. As the House will be aware, the services of my Department's Conciliation Service are always available at the request of one or both of the parties involved in an actual or threatened trade dispute, but it has been the practice, accepted by successive administrations, that when an issue is being dealt with under an industry's own procedural arrangements, intervention in the absence of a request should not normally take place. Such intervention could seriously weaken the procedural arrangements and prejudice settlement of future disputes. Since taking office, the Government have kept very closely in touch with developments on negotiations about the grain terminal, but no request for conciliation was received, and the prospect of a negotiated agreement ruled out any intervention.

However, as I have described, it unfortunately became clear at the end of June that further progress was unlikely to be made. I therefore arranged to ask the NJC whether it proposed to take any further steps to bring about a settlement and suggested conciliation. As the NJC reported to me that a settlement was not in prospect, my Department's conciliation service is at present exploring with the parties the question whether it can be of assistance in helping them to reach agreement on the outstanding issues.

I very much hope that this will lead swiftly to a conclusion of these long and difficult negotiations.

I do not want at this stage to discuss other initiatives which might be made—this could prejudice the present conciliation attempt—but I can assure the House that we shall do everything possible to ensure that reason and goodwill prevail so that the grain terminal can soon be opened and play its full part in bringing prosperity to the Port of Liverpool, to Merseyside and to the country as a whole.

Mr. Graham Page

The failure to man the grain terminal has nothing whatever to do with the Industrial Relations Act

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Thursday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour on Thursday Evening, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at four minutes past Twelve o'clock.