HC Deb 10 November 1976 vol 919 cc479-87

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 1, line 12, leave out "twelve" and insert "sixteen".

6.45 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Albert Booth)

I beg to move, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

With this amendment we are to discuss Lords Amendments Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

Mr. Booth

Since these amendments all deal with the method of appointment and the scope of the new National Dock Labour Board, it will be of help if I briefly set out the approach made to the issue when we last debated it in the House and in Committee.

It was common ground between the Government and the Opposition that the responsibilities of the new Board, as laid down in the Bill, were wider than those of the existing Board. If the Bill is left broadly in its present form, the new Board will be responsible for surveying and recommending in respect of the classification of provisions under Clauses 6, 7 and 8.

The responsibilities will also be wider because the Board will have a duty to review developments affecting the performance of dock work. It was considered that in those circumstances the new Board should be larger than the old. Although there were marginal reservations about the size of the Board, there was no great dissent from the basic proposition that the Board should comprise a chairman, vice-chairman and 12 others.

On Clause 1 we encountered more contentious debate on the issue of the Board's proportions. There was argument about the proportion of members coming from the National Joint Council for the Port Transport Industry, who should be consulted and which interests should be represented among those serving on the Board coming from areas other than the NJC for the industry. That contentious issue is dealt with in Amendments Nos. 1 and 2, which increase the number of members of the new Board from 12 to 16, in addition to the chairman and vice-chairman, and increases from four to eight the number of members to be appointed other than on the nomination or renomination of the NJC.

I urge the House to disagree with the Lords, first, because it would be wrong greatly to increase the size of the Board. The size is broadly right and it will be an effective working body. More seriously, I am anxious about the second leg of the propositions in the amendments, because they would reduce to less than half the proportion of members on the Board who came from the NJC. That would be a serious situation to create within such a Board.

If the National Dock Labour Board is to carry confidence and have the maximum effective co-operation, which it will require from employers and employees within the scheme, it is of the utmost importance that a substantial proportion of the Board be picked from nominees of the NJC. After all, the registered employers and registered dock workers will be primarily affected by decisions of the Board and by the operation of the scheme.

Although it is common ground between us that the Board should be bigger in order to allow interests other than those of the port employers' association and the two major unions organising registered dock unions to be represented, it would be greatly detrimental to the new Board if those other interests were in numerical terms to outweigh the representation of those who are directly involved in the scheme in the way I have described.

Another issue is raised by Amendments Nos. 3 and 4—that of whom the Secretary of State should consult before making the appointments of those other than the nominees of the National Joint Council. It is suggested that, in addition to consulting the National Joint Council, the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry, the National Consumer Council should be consulted.

I have studied the case that was deployed in another place for this proposition, just as I have re-examined the debates that we had in Committee on the issue of consumer interests and consumer representation. I take the view that the consumer interest is not best, or even adequately, served in the way the amendments suggest. Taking the narrow view of what "consumer interest" is and defining it as merely the price of the goods or services that the public pay, that clearly is a very small part, if any part at all, of the effect of decisions of the new National Dock Labour Board.

The proportion of the total costs of consumer goods in United Kingdom shops which is directly attributable to transport as a whole is fairly small. The part of that attributable to handling in the docks is very small indeed. If one were to seek to ascertain how much of the cost that the consumer faces arises from cargo handling in the docks, it would be found that a very small part of that was due to wages.

Clearly, the nature of the industry is such that there must be high fixed capital costs such as port installations, cargo handling machinery, harbour maintenance and a large number of other features besides the direct labour costs. Even giving this argument about the consumer interests on the Board its full scope, if one allowed that the wages element of dockers had an effect on consumer prices one would have to acknowledge that the Board will not negotiate wages: that will be a matter for the new National Joint Council for the industry.

Looking at the consumer interest from that narrow point of view, there is no case whatsoever for the amendment. It might be argued that there is a much better case, based upon that proposition, for putting consumer representatives on the boards of a whole series of manufacturing organisations and retail associations throughout the country whose activities have a much greater effect on the price that the consumer pays for goods.

I am prepared, and I think that the House should be prepared, to look at consumer interests in relation to what the Board does in a wider sense than that of merely the price paid for goods in the shop and to recognise that many people are consumers in the wider sense of the activity of dock workers—people who for their normal services and for their method of earning their bread and butter are dependent upon the docks working efficiently, dependent upon the raw materials being imported which they use in the factories, or dependent upon the importation of a whole range of manufactured and semi-manufactured goods. Looking at consumer interests in that wider sense, there are many more people than the National Consumer Council to be taken into account.

We are therefore right to make a provision in the Bill for consulting the CBI and the TUC before the appointment takes place of those members of the Board other than those who are nominated directly from the NJC; and I believe that those who are put forward by the TUC and the CBI will reflect the wider consumer interest in that sense. It might be as well for me to indicate now that the Government are prepared to accept the amendment to Clause 2 requiring the Board to have regard to the public interest". This takes account not just of consumers but of the community as a whole and of interests concerned with the use of manpower in the ports.

There are two other issues raised in this batch of amendments. There is, first, the issue whether the National Association of Warehousekeepers should be among the list of those to be consulted before appointments are made. It is undoubtedly the case that some of the work undertaken by member of the National Association of Warehousekeepers might be classified under the Bill, but a number of employers' associations are very much in the same position, and I do not think that it would be reasonable to require consultation with all such associations before appointing members of the Board.

The employers in question will almost all be individually or through trade associations in membership of the CBI and their interests can therefore be to that extent adequately represented. But, as we are in any case acknowledging in the way we propose to establish the Board that a wider trade union interest than that of the unions now represented on the Board and a wider employer interest is required, it would not be advisable to focus attention in this way on one particular section of employer interests.

The last point that arises on this batch of amendments is that arising on Amendment No. 6 which would, if agreed to, require four members of the Board to be appointed by the Secretary of State after consultation with the National Joint Council, the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry to represent consumers, port users and their employees and others not represented on the National Joint Council but with an interest in the efficient working of the ports The group of employers and employees not represented on the NJC and with the greatest interest in matters to be considered by the Board must obviously be those whose work might be subject to survey and a recommendation on classification.

My view, which was not basically contested in Committee, is that it would be wrong to limit the representation on the new Board to that of unions and employers currently in classified work and those whose work might be classified in the future. It was agreed between us that the employer-employee interest—or the union-employer interest—went much wider than that, and if we disagree with this amendment, we should do so in the spirit that I have indicated to the House: first, in accepting the amendment to widen the duty of the Board to have regard to the public interest and, secondly, to enable the Secretary of State responsible—whether it is myself or any successor—to ensure that that representation of all the interests other than those directly engaged in the industry at present should be properly considered when those other appointments are made.

Briefly, I am urging the House to make again a judgment which it made once before, a difficult judgment admittedly, on the size and composition of the Board, a judgment which has been arrived at after careful consideration of a series of issues, and one which will allow the slightly wider responsibility of the new Board to be exercised in a responsible way in the public interest as well as in the interests of the effective working of the industry.

7.0 p.m.

Mr. James Prior (Lowestoft)

As he has with most matters in the Bill, the Secretary of State has the balance wrong here, but we do not wish to detain the House on these amendments for very long because there are far more important matters which ought to be discussed.

In Committee we moved an amendment that there should be 14 members of the Board because we thought that 16 meant too big a Board. We were also worried that the National Joint Council was to have 50 per cent. representation, exclusive of the chairman and vice-chairman. We felt that there ought to be a much wider representation of interests on the Board, because the Government are seeking powers well beyond the powers of the Dock Labour Scheme and the Dock Labour Board as we know them now. Many other bodies and individuals, whether unions, dock users or consumers, were to be affected, and, therefore, it seemed right and proper that they should have their right to representation properly set out. Their Lordships found that it would be easy to do that if the size of the Board were increased from 12 to 16.

I am not in favour of big boards, and I do not suppose that their Lordships are, either, but they found it the easiest way of providing for the representation they desired and getting a balance of representation. That was the logic behind Lords Amendment No. 1.

Lords Amendment No. 6, which deals with representation of consumers, port users and their employees, and others not represented on the NJC, would place a duty on the Secretary of State to consult these other bodies before appointing members of the Board, whether eight, as the Government wanted, or four as is now written in the Bill. We felt that that was a sensible way of dealing with the matter.

We do not agree with the Minister that the proportion of members from the NJC should not be less than half. Of course we recognise the importance of the National Dock Labour Board's being able to carry the confidence of the employers and employees most affected, but there are other people whose confidence it is just as important to carry. We are disappointed that the Secretary of State has taken the view he has. We believe he is wrong and that their Lordships, particularly in Amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 6, are correct. We had hoped that the Secretary of State would agree with the Lords in the said amendments.

We do not propose to divide on this series of amendments, because we wish to get on to other more important matters. We support the Lords in the amendments. We are sorry that the Secretary of State has not found it possible to accept them.

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

I shall be brief, but I think it important that one or two points should go on record in view of the speech by the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) about the composition of the Board. He was unfair to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, because he fully understands that the Bill extends the interests to be represented on the National Dock Labour Board for the first time since it was set up. The Opposition should at least have given my right hon. Friend credit for that and conceded the broadening of interests in the composition of the Board.

The Opposition have argued that representation on the new body ought to go further than the CBI and the other bodies mentioned. There is a contradiction between what the Opposition have said tonight about representation of consumer interests and what they have said before. I am sure that most right hon. and hon. Members would want to see consumer interests represented in all our institutions, and to see particularly the interests of those who work in the industry represented as well. When the composition of boards of school governors was discussed the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) said that he would resist the idea that because pupils were consumers they should be represented on boards of management. It appears to me that there is no sense of unity in the Opposition about what consumer interests should mean.

For the first time there is to be a broader-based interest represented on the Board. Most even-minded people would agree that those mainly concerned about the running of the ports industry are those who work in it, who operate and manage it. By the inclusion of the other bodies the Bill has extended representation to other areas. In that sense the Government have given much of what the Opposition argued for in the composition of the new Board.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

I am disappointed that the Minister has not accepted the Lords amendment. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) agrees that we should be giving far more acknowledgement to the rôle of consumers on boards. He talked about governors of schools. When I was on a board of governors we brought in two pupils, and I am sure that the same thing is happening in other parts of the country. The Government should have given at least token acknowledgement of the fact that consumers should have some say in the appointment of members of the Board. We made the point in Committee, but lost there. It was ably made in another place, where it was carried. I am sorry that the Government have decided to remove the Lords amendment. It should have remained. However, I accept the decision of the Opposition Front Bench that there are far more important matters to come to, and, therefore, I shall not press this question.

Mr. Booth

In the Government's view the present provision about the appointment of members other than those who come directly from the NJC in no way excludes people who will have a high regard for the consumer interest. It leaves the matter at large and does not define the specific responsibility of particular appointees. What it does is to lay down that the Secretary of State must consult the TUC, the CBI and the NJC before he appoints them. Their duties and responsibilities will include those covered by the general duty of the Board in Clause 2, which, when we accept the amendment to that clause, will make a specific reference to the broader "public interest". I contend that that includes the interests of consumers. The fact that we are not saying what shall be the specific duties of the members of the Board additional to the NJC members does not mean that we are saying that there will be no consumer interest or responsibility recognised by the Board.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords Amendments Nos. 2 to 6 disagreed to.

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