HC Deb 20 October 1975 vol 898 cc32-5
Mr. R. C. Mitchell (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement about the dispute concerning the P. & O. ferry "Eagle" at present in Southampton Docks.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Michael Foot)

I understand that the crew of the ferry were informed, in the course of a return voyage, that the ship had been sold. After docking on Friday the crew sought to prevent passengers' cars leaving the ship while talks took place between representatives of the P. & O. Company, the crew and the National Union of Seamen. I understand that the crew are seeking assurances about continuing employment and severance arrangements.

These talks have taken place over the weekend and are even now continuing. I very much hope that they will lead to early agreement so that the passengers are no longer caused such serious inconvenience.

Mr. Mitchell

Would my right hon. Friend agree that this is yet another example of decisions being made behind the closed doors of board rooms without any prior consultation with those whose livelihood will be affected by such decisions? Nevertheless, may I ask my right hon. Friend to have urgent talks with the parties concerned with a view to obtaining at the earliest moment the release of the cars belonging to passengers? Does not this episode show the urgent need for an extension of industrial democracy?

Mr. Foot

I will not comment on all the points raised by my hon. Friend although when the full facts are discussed all the factors he mentioned will certainly be taken into account. It would be unwise of me to say anything about the immediate situation. I do not believe that there is any requirement for the Department to intervene because discussions are taking place. I hope that they will lead to an early settlement.

Mr. Higgins

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this dispute, is it not intolerable that individuals who are not parties to a particular dispute should be prevented from using their own property by trade unions who explicitly state that their object is to increase their bargaining power? Will the Secretary of State condemn such action? Otherwise, if it is accepted, whose property will be safe? Second, will he confirm that the blocking of the free movement of goods cannot be regarded as legitimate picketing? Third, in view of the adverse effect which such action is likely to have on tourist earnings and the balance of payments, may I ask what the Government propose to do to prevent any recurrence of such an incident?

Mr. Foot

I cannot think it would help towards the settlement, which I believe everyone wants, if I were to answer the specific questions which the hon. Gentleman has put to me.—[Hon. Members: "Answer."] The answer I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Mitchell) is the best way of trying to secure a settlement. Any question of legal matters and civil remedies is for the courts and should not be dealt with by answers from this Dispatch Box.

Mr. Gould

Would my right hon. Friend not accept that the Employment Protection Bill, when it becomes law, will be a very great help in avoiding such problems in future, particularly since it will make it much more difficult for employers to sell their undertakings, and their workers' jobs into the bargain, without any form of prior consultation?

Mr. Foot

The Employment Protection Bill will help in a whole series of problems. But with this particular dispute, when discussions are taking place at this moment, it would be most unwise for me to make comments which might injure a settlement. That would certainly not help the passengers get their cars off the ship.

Mr. Adley

Cannot the Secretary of State understand that the principle involved is far more important than the details of this dispute? Will he, from his important position, condemn unreservedly—whatever the rights and wrongs of the case—the actions of anyone, union or employer, who seeks to hold to ransom people's private property in furtherance of a dispute? Will he understand the natural anger of the passengers, to whom the law appears to offer no protection? Would he care to speculate why it was that when Cunard sold the "Franconia" and the "Carmania" last year, under identical circumstances, to the Russians, not a cheep of a complaint was heard?

Mr. Foot

I think that if hon. Members stopped and thought for a few minutes they would understand that statements made by me in reply to such questions as that, so far from assisting a settlement, might lead to a continuance of the dispute. Let us get the dispute settled and then we can discuss principles.

Mr. Tinn

While recognising that my right hon. Friend cannot comment on this matter at present, may I ask him whether he is aware that many of us feel that what requires condemnation in this case is the fact that the crew had to take such action before proper consultations could take place?

Mr. Foot

As I have said, there are implications on different sides of this dispute which will obviously be discussed. I do not think that it would be sensible for me, at the very moment when people in Southampton are trying to get the matter settled, to say something that may unsettle things. It may be an extraordinary utterance for me to make, and for the House to accept, but the less I say about it the better.

Mr. Burden

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that one of those whose cars were held up was due to appear before a judge today? Is he further aware that that judge has given an instruction that the man should be allowed to remove his car immediately? Does the right hon. Gentleman give full support to this attitude on the part of the judge?

Mr. Foot

One of the reasons why it would be most unwise for me to make statements of this kind now is precisely that there may be civil remedies here. That is something for the courts. The hon. Gentleman must understand that civil remedies are matters for the courts and are not to be decided by Ministers seeking to lay down the law at this Dispatch Box.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

On a point of order—

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is for me to arrange the order of proceedings with regard to points of order. The Prime Minister is to make a statement, then there is to be an application under Standing Order No. 9. The hon. Member may then raise his point of order.