HC Deb 10 July 1984 vol 63 cc879-86 3.30 pm
Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the national dock strike.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

Yesterday, the docks and waterways group of the Transport and General Workers Union called upon its members in all ports to stop work from midnight last night. I understand that the reason for its decision was that it considers that there was a breach of the dock labour scheme in connection with the handling of iron ore at Immingham.

First indications are that registered dock workers are on strike at most major ports within the dock labour scheme, but dockers have been working normally so far in virtually all non-scheme ports and in a few scheme ports.

The National Joint Council for the Ports Industry is meeting later this afternoon to discuss the issue. I very much hope that the employers and unions will quickly agree on a basis for ending the strike.

Mr. Prescott

Will the Secretary of State confirm that there has been a clear and intentional breach of the national dock labour scheme in the use of unregistered labour in the port of Immingham? Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that the national strike reflects the growing fear of dock workers, which we have warned him about in the past two months, that the employers' demand for the abolition of the national dock labour scheme is receiving sympathetic attention from him?

In view of the pressure from the Tory young Turks for such abolition, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the number of jobs in the industry has already declined by over 20,000 since 1979? Is he aware that the fears of the dockers have been exacerbated by the knowledge among dock workers that, as the Secretary of State has admitted, he is the author of the Ridley plan to dismantle public sector industries and the unions within them, specifically mentioning coal and the docks industry?

Does the Secretary of State accept the statement made by representatives of the port employers yesterday and today that the terms of the statutory dock labour scheme have been breached and that it is a matter which should be dealt with by the Government and the National Dock Labour Board, rather than by unilateral action by an individual port employer? Will the right hon. Gentleman get together with the Department of Employment to offer open and constructive help and assistance on the future of the national dock labour scheme, instead of allowing the strike to fester into another great industrial dispute, causing great damage to this country?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman's first and last questions were the same. The answer is that this is in no sense anything but a dispute about the interpretation of the national dock labour scheme. The way to sort out such disputes is by reference to the local dock labour board. I very much regret that that solution has not been pursued by the parties to the dispute. The Government are in no way involved.

With regard to the future of the dock labour scheme, I have nothing to add to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment has constantly said. There are no plans at present to do anything at all about that scheme. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman's second question is without foundation. Finally, he referred to previous plans leaked by the party in opposition. I can confirm that these have no relevance whatsoever to the dispute.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this dispute has been born out of a great deal of misunderstanding? In fact, in the port of Immingham the dockers who are involved in the loading of iron ore for Scunthorpe were themselves happy to carry on doing that work and, even though there is a present a dispute in that port, the vote yesterday was on a very small margin. Will my right hon. Friend use his best endeavours to contain the strike? It is very much a local dispute and there is no justification for it becoming a national dispute. Will he do all in his power to bring together those locally in the Port Employers Association, the National Dock Labour Board representatives, possibly the British Steel Corporation and the Transport and General Workers Union to resolve what is essentially a local dispute where there is no appetite for strike action, even on the part of those who may have voted for a strike?

Mr. Ridley

It is not for the Government to interpret what happened yesterday in Immingham. It should properly be the responsibility of the local dock labour board to interpret the agreement in that port. However, as the action has escalated to national level, I place much faith on the National Joint Council for the Ports Industry which is meeting within a few minutes to try to solve the dispute at national level. In view of the very local and uncertain nature of the origin of the dispute, I would have thought that it should be possible for reasonable people to sort it out this afternoon.

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

Will the Secretary of State accept that his attitude and the attitude of the Government towards dock workers on a number of issues, including the Dock Work Regulation Act 1976, has made clear the intentions of the Government towards the National Dock Labour scheme? Is the Secretary of State aware that dockers are fully convinced that the Government intend to scrap that scheme and that no words from the Secretary of State can absolve the Government of the responsibility of placing dockers in that position? In a recent debate in the House, the Secretary of State was warned that any attempt to crack the scheme would result in the unification of dock workers, who would fight to the death to preserve the scheme. Therefore, the fault really lies in the hands of the Secretary of State and in the attitude of the Government towards dock workers in general.

Mr. Ridley

I really do not see how that can be so. The Government have made it clear that they have no plans for altering the dock labour scheme. Indeed, this dispute is not about that, but about the interpretation of the scheme in one port—Immingham. If there is difficulty about the interpretation of the scheme, surely it is the National Dock Labour Board, which the hon. Gentleman cherishes so much, that should sort out the dispute. Why does he not advocate that the parties to the dispute should go to the local dock labour board, the body that he has defended so robustly in his supplementary question?

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West)

Will my right hon. Friend estimate the cost of the dispute for each day or week in terms of closed wharves and forced redundancies? Further, will he publish the number of days lost by industrial action in each of our major ports this year and the effect of that?

Mr. Ridley

Without notice, I cannot give my hon. Friend specific figures of the sort that he has asked for. I wish to underline the point he has made, that the damage from any dock strike, which I hope will be short-lived on this occasion, will fall on those concerned and on our exporters and that the profit from it will go to those overseas who benefit from our ports being idle.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the meeting that is due to take place this afternoon is to see whether existing agreements at Immingham have been broken? That is a simple matter. If the agreements have been broken, will the Secretary of State ensure that the Government intercede immediately to try to reach a settlement because this strike is highly damaging to 80 per cent. of our exporters?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman is right; the purpose of the meeting this afternoon is to see whether existing agreements have been broken. If they have been broken —I say "if", because I do not know—the remedy is for the employers to undertake not to breach them again. It is not for the Government to intervene in a matter like that. It is a dispute between the employers and the dockers.

Mr. Tim Eggar (Enfield, North)

Is it not extremely depressing the way in which the Official Opposition consistently back strikes, however flimsy the excuse on which they are called? Do not strikes lead directly to unemployment? Is this what Mr. Scargill and the Official Opposition call trade union solidarity?

Mr. Ridley

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is trying to make bricks without straw to escalate the origins of such a dispute—which are purely local and about the identification of the nature of the dispute—into some sort of great political plot by the Government. It is that gross misrepresentation by the Opposition that is leading them into such total disrepute.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)

Why does the Secretary of State continue to profess innocence about the dispute? Does he not understand that the provocative statement by the Britsh Steel Corporation yesterday, that it would switch work from dockers inside the scheme to those outside the scheme, must have made every docker in Britain, including those in Grangemouth in my constituency — who have the best non-strike record of any industry — fear that their work may also be transferred to non-scheme dockers? Does the right hon. Gentleman really not understand the fear of scheme workers about the removal of their work to non-scheme workers? If he does not understand that, why on earth is he doing that job?

Mr. Ridley

What happened at Immingham yesterday is not for either me or the hon. Gentleman to interpret. We do not know the full facts. It is better to leave it to the local dock labour board, which, after all, has the statutory responsibility to try to sort out such disputes. I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman's pride in the good strike record of the dockers at Grangemouth shows that he believes that it would be a good idea if dockers did not immediately strike without being sure of the cause of the dispute.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, with the completion of the new container terminal, the prospects facing the port of King's Lynn are brighter than they have been for many years, which will obviously lead to the creation of new jobs? Is he further aware that a lengthy dispute will put all that in jeopardy?

Mr. Ridley

So far this morning, it appears that the scheme ports have virtually all come out on strike, while the non-scheme ports are still working. Perhaps there is a message in that for those who would continue the strike.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

Is not the message that the Government are trying to promote a policy whereby docks employ people casually at low rates, without proper protection, so that the workers are not certain of being able to take home a weekly wage to cover their household expenses? Are not the Government trying to break the NDLB scheme?

Will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that it is not his intention to press for the docks with registered labour to go casual, and that workers will not go back to fighting in pens for jobs, bribing gaffers for a couple of hours work on the dockside and pawning wedding rings on Monday to get them through to the end of the week? Will he give an absolute guarantee that there will be no change in the dock labour scheme during the lifetime of this Government?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman's point is not borne out by the facts. The channel ports, such as Dover, Felixstowe and others, which are outside the scheme, have wages and conditions that compare favourably with many scheme ports. If the hon. Gentleman feels and speaks so strongly in favour of the national dock labour scheme, why has the machinery embodied in that for solving such disputes as the one at Immingham yesterday been bypassed by the dockers? Does not that further derogate from the importance of the scheme that the hon. Gentleman seeks to defend?

Mr. Kenneth Carlisle (Lincoln)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is utterly wrong that many dockers have been forced to strike against their will and suffer a threat to their long-term employment without any chance to express their wishes in the matter?

Mr. Ridley

I cannot comment on whether what my hon. Friend says is true. We may draw conclusions from the fact that, although a large number of ports are out today, many non-scheme ports are still working, but it is not yet possible to define the reasons for that.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

Does the Secretary of State appreciate that the dockers at Immingham and Grimsby did not want to strike but reluctantly took action because their jobs were being done by non-registered labour? If he is not prepared to do his duty and intervene, will he ask his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister what advice and correspondence her private secretaries are sending to Ian MacGregor about the British Steel Corporation intervening in the docks and doing registered dock workers' jobs?

Mr. Ridley

First, the dispute at Immingham involves BSC dockers and has nothing to do with the National Coal Board or Mr. MacGregor, who no longer runs BSC. Secondly, my duty is not to intervene in the dispute. The statute requires the national dock labour scheme to sort it out, in the first instance through the local board and in the second instance through the national board. If the hon. Gentleman feels so strongly in defence of that machinery, why has he not today urged the dockers to use that machinery rather than escalating the dispute to a national strike without even trying to make the procedure work?

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that any trouble in Britain's dock scheme ports leads to an immediate benefit for continental ports which is very bad for UK Limited?

Mr. Ridley

On the evidence of today's strike, it also leads to benefit for non-scheme ports; so there are two lessons to be learned, as the benefit goes to both continental competitors and non-scheme ports.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. There is an important debate to follow and also a ten-minute Bill. I shall call those hon. Members who have been seeking to catch my eye, but I ask them to be brief.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that the original Ridley proposals of 1981, as leaked to the Economist, included the proposition that troops should be used in instances of this kind? Will he give an absolute assurance that, if the present dispute escalates, troops will not be used in the way that he suggested at that time?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman has both the date and the content of the document wrong. On such false premises, it is difficult to answer any questions that he may ask.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that the events of the past few weeks, and especially the letters leaked to the Daily Mirror, show that the Government's tactic is to ensure that no two groups of industrial workers are engaged in combat with their employers at the same time, particularly in the transport industry and British Rail, with the buying off that took place in that instance? As two groups of industrial workers — the miners and the dockers — are now on strike, which will the Government try to buy off first? As for bringing the sides together, will the right hon. Gentleman give a categorical assurance that in no circumstances will he or any member of the Government make any move to bring the two sides of the dock dispute together?

Mr. Ridley

As usual, the hon. Gentleman has the facts wrong. Some dockers are on strike, but others are not, and some miners are on strike, but others are not, including those in the hon. Gentleman's own constituency. In those circumstances, the two sides that need bringing together seem to be the two sides of the union. The hon. Gentleman refers to "buying off' various groups, but neither the miners nor the dockers are in any sense in dispute with their employers about pay.

Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)

Having seen what has happened to the mining industry as a result of the NUM refusing to hold a ballot, would not the dockers be well advised to insist on a ballot here and now?

Mr. Ridley

I hope that the dockers will hear my hon. Friend's advice. But in my view it would be better to see whether they can sort out this dispute at the meeting today. I am sure that the whole House hopes and wishes that they will succeed.

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

Is not the Secretary of State aware that the dock workers made it clear at a conference last April that they would consider any attack on the scheme a national issue and one that could lead to a national strike? This Government and the port employers had very adequate notice. The full consultative process has been gone through already. Is it not clear that it is the Government's actions that the dockers are studying and not the statements that Ministers make in the Chamber? Only three weeks ago the Government unleashed a free market in the ports, allowing new non-scheme ports to be developed, and they have not made it clear that the scheme is sacrosanct for the life of this Parliament. Will the right hon. Gentleman now make that clear to all the dockers who want to go back to work but who want to make sure that the future of their industry —and and their jobs— is safeguarded?

Mr. Ridley

This particular dispute may or may not centre around a breach in the dock labour rules. It is not clear whether it does. There are two sides to that story. It would seem right, first, for the dockers to have gone to the National Dock Labour Board to see whether they could agree that a breach had been made. If that was all that it was about, we would not have had this strike. But I wonder whether there is any point in the strike, because there is no action which the employers are being asked to take other than might be involved in a possible breach. It must start, surely, with a reference to the National Dock Labour Board to see whether there is any breach in the conditions of that agreement.

Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

Is not the Secretary of State fully aware that the BSC action was a clear and provocative breach of the national dock labour scheme and that this comes at a time of growing fears for the very future of the scheme? If the right hon. Gentleman really wants to help to resolve the dispute, will he make it clear that, while the Government want improved efficiency in our ports, that should be achieved through the national dock labour scheme — perhaps an extended scheme—and as a result of direct negotiations between the employers and the Transport and General Workers Union?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman alleges that this was a breach by the BSC. If he believes that, can he say why the dockers who felt that—they were by no means more than a bare majority, even in Immingham—did not take that dispute to the local dock labour board to have the employer asked to change his ways? The fact that they did not do so makes it clear that there is some other motive behind this strike. There is no conceivable motive that I can think of, because the Government have in no sense done or said anything to suggest that they will change their position about the National Dock Labour Board. It is incumbent upon those who would speak for the dockers in this case to say why the machinery has not been used.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Now that the dockers have joined the miners in opposition to this Government and the use of non-registered labour by the Government and their agencies to try to break the miners' strike, does the Minister accept that, in the words of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the aim of this Government is to neuter the trade unions? Does not the right hon. Gentleman accept, further, that when workers such as miners and dockers hear about a miner lying in a Nuneaton hospital with a suspected broken neck as a result of the action—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not think that this has anything to do with the dock strike.

Mr. Nellist

It has to do with the dock strike.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not introduce the mining dispute into this.

Mr. Nellist

But that is what this strike is about.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. Flannery.

Mr. Nellist

Does not the Minister agree, therefore—

Mr. Speaker

Order. If the hon. Gentleman persists, he must put his question finally about the dock strike, please.

Mr. Nellist

I am trying to do so, Mr. Speaker. Does not the Minister agree, therefore, that, like the dockers today, in dispute against this Government because of the actions of the BSC at Scunthorpe and Immingham to do with the miners' strike, more and more workers are being driven into supporting the miners against the Government and that he and his colleagues will be responsible when more generalised strike action wins the dispute for the miners?

Mr. Ridley

It is fascinating to hear that lone voice from the Opposition saying that the reason for the dispute is not the breach of the dock labour rules at Immingham but the fact that the dockers are deciding to join the miners' strike for political reasons. I ask the Opposition, and all those hon. Gentlemen who take an opposite view, to try to reason with the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) about whether he or they are right. He has let the cat out of the bag now. I am surprised to hear him making such an admission.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

When will the Secretary of State realise that the elected dictatorship of which he is a member is now deep in a quagmire of its own making? Is it not a fact that it decided to attack the dockers in the same way that it attacked the miners, the railwaymen and every section of the trade union movement? Now, willy-nilly, whether it likes it or not, it is bringing the dockers into line with the miners. As I said last week, there is now a drive towards a general strike, which the Government are creating. Does he realise that, unless something is done to prove to the dockers that this is not a political attack on the work scheme for which they fought all these years, he is inviting disaster and a disaster is in the offing?

Mr. Ridley

This extraordinary quagmire that the hon. Gentleman alleges that we have dug seems to be an odd quagmire in the sense that many people in the dock and mining industries do not wish to strike and have refused to leave their work place. It seems an odd piece of working-class solidarity.