HC Deb 15 November 1976 vol 919 cc930-8

3.33 p.m.

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

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the Dock Work Regulation Bill.

This afternoon the decisions taken by this House in our debate on the Bill last week are being considered in another place. Additionally, the Government have put forward for consideration in another place further amendments.

These, if found acceptable, would substitute the concept of a definable dock area for that of a cargo-handling zone throughout the Bill, as decided in principle by this House. They would ensure that a new Dock Labour Scheme would be applied to all work to which the 1967 Scheme is now applied, whether or not located in a definable dock area. They would provide that objections to a proposal to extend any particular definable dock area would be subject to public inquiry and that any subsequent order for such an extension would be laid in draft before Parliament and would need to be approved by a resolution of each House.

I believe that these amendments would provide a sensible and workable measure which I would want to commend to this House.

If these amendments are found acceptable in another place, and no other amendments are insisted on, on behalf of the Government I assure the House that we would not seek to introduce the Bill as it was approved by the Commons on Third Reading with a view to enacting it under the Parliament Act.

Mr. Prior

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we welcome the Government's acceptance of the clear will of the House of Commons as expressed last Wednesday? We welcome the fact that the five-mile corridor—the so-called dockers' corridor—is dead. We consider this to be a victory for common sense and it will be of relief to hon. Members in all parts of the House.

Would the Secretary of State clarify the definition of a dock area in order to make certain that it is not a continuous corridor but restricted to an area only half a mile around each harbour? Secondly, if the National Dock Labour Board seeks to extend any area, will each area and each extension be looked at separately and subject to the public inquiry and affirmative resolution procedures that the right hon. Gentleman has announced? Does that mean that blanket power to extend without public inquiry has been withdrawn?

Are the right hon. Gentleman and the House aware that of the many vital issues long debated, two of the most important issues—the withdrawal of the corridor and the inclusion of a public inquiry procedure for any extension—will now stand part of the Bill and will not be amended?

Mr. Booth

With regard to the right hon. Gentleman's final point, I cannot give undertakings about what the House will do. It will be for this House to consider what amendments should be made. If these amendments which are tabled in the other place are returned to this House, I can and will undertake that the Government will support these and no other amendments to the Bill.

With regard to the definition of the dock area, a definable dock area as decided by this House is a less precise term than that of a cargo-handling zone, but that was the decision of the House. I would make absolutely clear that the procedure which is proposed under the amendments for a public inquiry into any extension would ensure that any definable dock area, or any single geographical area of a harbour, would be considered separately. They would be considered one at a time. There would be no question of a block order covering a large group of areas. It is intended to work in that way.

Mr. Donald Stewart

While welcoming the right hon. Gentleman's statement, I regret that he will not accept any further amendments. Can the Secretary of State give further consideration to naming the small ports which will be exempted in the Bill?

Mr. Booth

I am guided by the decisions that this House took last week. The House decided to reject the proposal to consider small ports in a separate way, and I shall be guided by that.

Mr. Kinnock

Is my right hon. Friend aware that on this side of the House we are inclined to accept his wisdom and the consultations which seem to have gone on in the last few days to draw up this conclusion as a result of the consequences of last Thursday night? However, worries remain. We welcome my right hon. Friend's assurance that those bodies, including this House and the other place, which will continue to have an ongoing responsibility for these affairs will not be able to exercise and tender judgment which would prohibit the effective working of the scheme as laid out in the Bill.

Mr. Booth

Yes, I think I can assure my hon. Friend in that way. The amendments which have been tabled reflect, first, the judgment and decision of this House and, secondly, a clear understanding between Government and Opposition as to what is required to make an effective working measure of the Bill. They also take into account the declared intention of both Government and Opposition that it was no part of their purpose in passing this legislation to prevent a new scheme from working in all those areas which are covered by the 1967 Scheme.

Mr. Beith

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that, however much he may dislike a decision of this House, it is right that the House should review and at times change Government legislation? What remaining principal merit does he see in the Bill which has led him not to drop it altogether?

Mr. Booth

A considerable merit that I see in the Bill if these amendments are passed is that it will enable a far more flexible method to be used of determining what is classifiable dock work, a method which I think will work much better in modern terms than does the present scheme. It will also enable the National Dock Labour Board to contain representatives of a wider range of people with interests in dock work than does the current Dock Board. Those are two benefits well worth having in the scheme.

To have dropped the Bill altogether would have been an irresponsible response by the Government to a decision of the House. I have never taken the position that the Government should not accept fully decisions of this House. This House did not decide to get rid of the Bill. It decided to change the concept of cargo-handling zone for that of definable dock area and I shall work as effectively as I can to secure the decision of this House.

Mr. McNamara

The House will welcome what the Secretary of State has just said, that he will work to ensure the decision of this House. But will he seek to persuade the House to change its mind in its next Session and get back to where we were—the original agreement on which the Government were elected and the undertaking to the dock workers' union?

Mr. Booth

I am certainly not committing the Government today not to introduce amending legislation in any future Session. Obviously a Government will have to be able to consider their position on future legislation, but that is not what we are discussing today.

Mr. David Price

As a member of the Standing Committee which spent 36 sit, tings considering the Bill, may I welcome the Government's decision, which is sensible in the circumstances? May I also put it to the right hon. Gentleman that the hard-core problem which we discussed in Committee which gave cause for the Bill was the problem of the rundown of London docks and that we thought that that problem was much wider than the dock problem specifically? There has been delay in the refurbishing of the East End of London. Would the right hon. Gentleman suggest to the Leader of the House that we have a Select Committee to look into this problem, which is much wider than that of the docks and remains after his announcement today?

Mr. Booth

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for my proposal. The question of a Select Committee to look into the particular problems of London is one that I shall have to refer to the Leader of the House. However, the Bill as amended can serve the interests of the dock industry in many areas of this country. The Bill is not required solely for the problem of London, which I admit is considerable.

Mr. Bidwell

Would not my right hon. Friend agree that the proof of the pudding will be in the eating and that whether we have a Labour Government or a Conservative Government, they will have to address their mind earnestly to the problems of dock workers, whose labour and spirit are vital to our economic future? If we take that approach, we shall probably get it right.

Mr. Booth

I agree very much with my hon. Friend. The problems of dockland do not come or go away because the country changes its Government. I hope that I may be allowed to say that one of the factors which may have brought about the measure of understanding which now exists is the realisation by many hon. Members that there is a need for effective modern legislation in this area.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

Have these welcome compromises also been welcomed by the Transport and General Workers Union and the other unions involved? Is this welcome spirit of compromise by the Government likely to extend to other Bills which we shall shortly be considering, such as the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill and the Health Services Bill?

Mr. Booth

I have no guarantee that these changes will be welcomed by all the unions involved. I acted on a decition of this House and not a decision of any one union or any group of unions. I shall certainly do my best to advise the unions concerned to co-operate to the hilt with the decision of the House.

Mr. Leadbitter

My right hon. Friend is rightly responding to the decision of the House in the past few days, but I hope that he will understand that this is not an inflexible situation, that the House would be far wiser to be prudent and to accept that there will be a fluid situation and that there will have to be consultations, particularly on this side, with the trade union movement. Would he bear in mind the fact—although he has tried to do his best in the circumstances—that some of us are a little alarmed? This is a highly sensitive area. There has been close consultation with the unions and with the port employers and we are somewhat dismayed—I hope that he can explain the position—about what has happened on a matter on which a firm opinion was expressed from the Front Bench about the principle of public inquiries. Would he assure us that the principle of a public inquiry which is now introduced will not inhibit future discussions on these matters?

Mr. Booth

First, the long consultations which have been held with employers and unions were taken into account by the Government in judging the acceptability of, and forming a view on, the legislation.

The public inquiry which was debated last week was any inquiry before a new national scheme was confirmed. The House rejected that idea. The inquiry to which I have referred today would be one before the geographical area of any definable dock area was extended. That is a different matter which I would commend to the House on the grounds that "definable dock area" is not so precise a concept as was the cargo-handling zone and that a public inquiry into the area where there were objections would serve a useful function.

Mr. Lawson

In answer to a question from the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara), the Secretary of State was a little evasive and imprecise. Can he confirm that the Gov- ernment have no intention of introducing an amending Bill to restore the five-mile corridor in the next Session of Parliament?

Mr. Booth

I hope that I can now make it clear that I am being neither evasive nor imprecise. The answer to the hon. Member's question is "No".

Mr. Rathbone

Could the right hon. Gentleman explain in rather more detail how his announcement is a compromise? Does it not reflect the decisions of the House last week? Why should he feel that his Government should therefore take it upon themselves to refuse in advance amendments which may be made in another place and which may reflect the interests of many hon. Members' constituents, including all of mine?

Mr. Booth

The word "compromise" is that of the hon. Member. It is not my word. I did not say that it was a compromise. I said that these were proposals which I believed would make the Bill workable, and I think that I am justified in saying that that is the wish of the House. If other amendments are made to the Bill in another place, it will be a matter for this House to determine, but I have made it clear that if the amendments now proposed, and no other, are put to us in this House as a result of the deliberations which take place in another place today, I shall advocate the support of those amendments and the rejection of any others which would change the Bill's nature further.

Mr. Heffer

Since my right hon. Friend now has the assured support of all hon. Members on this side to make this a workable piece of legislation, would he not agree that it will not solve the long-term problems of the dock industry? Will he not at some future date come down to having to carry out Labour's proposals for the public ownership of the docks?

Mr. Booth

The Dock Work Regulation Bill was never intended by the Government to deal with the question to which public ownership of the dock industry is addressed. That is a separate proposal. It is a proposal which I supported when it was first introduced and which I shall be happy to support in the future.

Mr. Aitken

Is the Secretary of State aware that there will be great relief in many parts of the country, and indeed in many non-docker trade unions, at the way in which he has bowed to the inevitable and gracefully surrendered this afternoon? Is he aware also that this relief will be tempered by some anxiety by the equivocal answer he gave to his hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara)? Will he not now once again bow to the inevitable and, even if he will not give an assurance, for which my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson) asked him, at least admit that, owing to the devolution legislation log jam in the next Session, there is no prospect of the dockers' corridor being introduced again?

Mr. Booth

I certainly was not being equivocal in my answer. I made it absolutely clear that I am giving no assurance whatsoever from this Dispatch Box today that amending legislation will not be introduced by a Government in the future. I certainly accept the implications of what the hon. Gentleman is saying about the time available for legislation next Session. I think that would make it difficult for any of my colleagues or myself to claim additional time to introduce legislation.

Mr. Kelley

Will my right hon. Friend take note, and advise his colleagues who are not present, that most of the welcoming statements that he has received and the eulogies that have been poured upon him have come from the other side and not from his colleagues behind him?

Mr. Booth

Yes. That is something which gives me the gravest cause for concern.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that there are many other industries with problems of employment either in terms of working conditions or in terms of declining industries, as in newspaper printing and steel, and that it is impossible to solve the problems of these industries by legislation such as the Dock Work Regulation Bill before it was amended? Will he bear that in mind and institute consultations across the parties about what is the best approach to put these problems right and also recognise that when he gave his equivocal answer about reintroducing amending legislation next year there were not great cries from his side of the House insisting on having such a measure?

Mr. Booth

I certainly accept that there are problems in many industries which do not lend themselves to solution by decasualisation legislation. That is almost self-evident. As far as we can, when we deal with problems by legislation or by policy or by administrative changes we try to carry people with us in doing so, and that involves discussions with representatives of other parties.

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