HC Deb 16 July 1984 vol 64 cc33-41 4.10 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the clock strike.

Registered dockers are on strike at all ports in the dock labour scheme. Dockers are also on strike at the non-scheme ports of Montrose and Shoreham and, as regards freight traffic, at Dover, Felixstowe and Portsmouth. Ferry services for passengers, cars and coaches are continuing to operate.

As I told the House last week, the Transport and General Workers Union called the strike because of an alleged breach of the scheme by the British Steel Corporation at Immingham. Last Thursday, the National Dock Labour Board, under the procedures in the dock labour scheme itself, decided that the scheme had been breached. By the following day the British Steel Corporation had remedied the matter for the future to the satisfaction of the Immingham dockers.

Despite that, the union has not called off the strike. Discussions between the union and the National Association of Port Employers in the national joint council for the ports industry broke up on Friday evening without any agreement being reached. I understand that the union is insisting the NAPE should guarantee that there will be no breaches of the scheme in future. The port emloyers have reaffirmed their willingness to honour fully their obligations under the scheme and believe that alleged breaches of the scheme should continue to be determined by the dock labour boards under the statutory procedures.

It has been said that dockers fear that the Government intend to abolish the dock labour scheme. Let me make it absolutely clear that the Government have no plans to change or abolish the scheme. There is therefore now no reason whatsoever for the strike.

I understand that both the union and NAPE have now accepted invitations from ACAS to discuss the dispute. I wish them all success. This strike can only damage many jobs in the ports, and in other industries, too. It is not in the interests of dockers, their families, their fellow workers in other industries, or of the country.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

The House will welcome the intervention by ACAS into this escalating docks dispute at scheme and non-scheme ports. Is the Secretary of State aware that I welcome his confirmation today, as I said in an intervention during his last statement, that there was a clear breach of the scheme in law by the British Steel Corporation at Immingham?

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to repeat the substance of his interview on the radio programme "The World This Weekend", especially his inflammatory remarks about the use of troops?

Has the right hon. Gentleman taken the opportunity to discuss with representatives of the dock workers the contents of his speech on 12 April at the port workers' lunch, when he clearly expressed his sympathy with a call to abolish the scheme, which I warned him at the time would lead to industrial dispute? Is not he aware that his speech, along with his infamous 1978 Ridley plan specifically to dismantle the coal and dock industries, has contributed largely to the fears that have triggered off this dispute? The talk of troops by him now can only serve to inflame it.

These fears can only make the job of ACAS much more difficult. Will the right hon. Gentleman say that he is now prepared, not only not to change the scheme, but to meet the dock workers to reassure them about the future of the scheme and of the docks in which they work?

Mr. Ridley

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman at least welcomes the intervention of ACAS and I hope that he wishes it well. However, the National Dock Labour Board found that there was a breach at Immingham. Now that the breach has been remedied by the employers, is the hon. Gentleman recommending the Transport and General Workers Union to send the dockers back, since the original cause of the strike has now been proved to be cured?

At no time over the weekend have I mentioned the word "troops". I repeat that the Government stand ready to take any action that eventually becomes necessary to make sure that the essential affairs of the country are kept running.

Since both this week and last week the Government have given undertakings that there are no plans for changing or abolishing the national dock labour scheme, that removes any excuse for the strike. Is the hon. Gentleman now prepared to advise the dockers to go back to work on the ground that they have been misled about the cause of the strike?

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

As my right hon. Friend said, the original cause of the dispute has now been resolved and settled. While wishing ACAS well in its attempt to try to break the deadlock, may I ask my right hon. Friend to say what role ACAS can play, bearing in mind that this does not appear any longer to be an industrial dispute? Is it not a political dispute?

Mr. Ridley

There is a great difference of opinion between Mr. Scargill, who says that it is a political dispute in support of the miners, and the Transport and General Workers Union, which says that it is entirely to do with the national dock labour scheme. I hope that their discussions this morning have succeeded in sorting out that essential difference, because it seems to me that the unions owe it to the dockers to tell them what is the cause of the dispute.

Mr. Richard Wainwright (Colne Valley)

The Secretary of State has given a welcome assurance now that the Government have no plans to change the scheme. Is it the fact that ACAS, in its difficult task, will not be asked from any quarter to consider amendments to the existing national dock labour scheme?

Mr. Ridley

I cannot answer for what anyone says to ACAS. But only this House of Parliament can change the scheme. It would need the Government to propose legislation to the House before the scheme could be changed. In case anyone did not hear me on the last 20 occasions that I said it, I repeat that the Government have no plans to do that.

Sir Paul Bryan (Boothferry)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that at Felixstowe and at Dover the dockers were given no choice before being ordered out on strike? Is not this a repetition of what happened in the coal dispute and yet further proof that these are purely political strikes and have nothing to do with the welfare or grievances of the workers?

Mr. Ridley

It is right that we should have enacted the legislation, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment is bringing to completion, ensuring that workers should be consulted in a secret ballot about whether they wish to go on strike. It is evidently plain that at no stage in the docks dispute have any workers been consulted in a secret ballot. Indeed, the evidence from Dover this morning about the nature of the vote is very disturbing.

Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

When will the Government recognise that neither the Transport and General Workers Union nor the National Union of Mineworkers will be humiliated or defeated? How much damage will be done to the country's economy and social fabric before settlements are reached that reflect the legitimate aspirations of these workers to defend their jobs?

Mr. Ridley

I ask the hon. Gentleman, in turn, what are the aspirations of the Transport and General Workers Union? All its requests about this strike have now been shown either to be settled or to be groundless. Can the hon. Gentleman use his influence—since he says that he has it—to get the dockers to accept that they have been called out on strike on false pretences and that it is high time that they went back?

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

We have just listened to a statement from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services about the rights of individuals with respect to pensions. Taking up the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Boothferry (Sir P. Bryan), may I remind my right hon. Friend that the House has a responsibility to see that individuals are not bullied and intimidated into taking strike action when they have no choice in the matter? Will my right hon. Friend share my utter contempt of a once great political party that will support any strike by anyone anywhere at any time regardless of the rights or wrongs of the issue involved?

Mr. Ridley

Both points made by my hon. Friend require to be taken seriously by the House. We owe it to all citizens, including those who are members of trade unions, to ensure that they are protected from harassment, intimidation and pressures of the sort that my hon. Friend described. I agree that when we have an Opposition who sink to the depths of supporting a strike that is as flimsy in origin and as unjustified as this one, we have a problem in our political system.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

Will the Secretary of State admit that the guilty party in the strike—the British Steel Corporation—is a major port employer, a member of the National Association of Port Employers and a signatory to the national dock labour scheme? It knew all the implications of its action when it decided to use non-registered labour at Immingham to unload ships.

Will the right hon. Gentleman also admit that the case going before ACAS is on a narrow point, merely asking for procedures to be adopted to prevent strikes arising in the future over the use of non-registered labour? If the right hon. Gentleman really wanted to settle matters today, he could say that not only are there no plans for changes, but that he and the Government have no intention of introducing any changes in the lifetime of this Parliament.

Mr. Ridley

There were two breaches of the dock labour scheme. The first was the one at Immingham to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The second was not using the procedures to sort out that alleged breach but instead calling the entire national dock labour force out on strike, before the procedures had been used. It takes two to make a bargain and the unions should stick to the terms of the dock labour scheme, just as much as the employers should.

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, I do not believe that it is possible to go further than to say that the Government have no plans. I cannot give a stronger undertaking than that, and I repeat it.

Mr. Richard Hickmet (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

Bearing in mind how events arose at Immingham, is not the strike demonstrated to be political by the fact that Mr. Connolly, the dockers' leader, informed the dockers at the ore terminal at Immingham that, notwithstanding the fact that they originally wanted to load ore to go to Scunthorpe, they would lose their cards, jobs and incomes if they did so? Consequently, they stopped working. Has not the strike been engineered by the docker's leaders, in support of Mr. Scargill and his efforts to defeat this democratically elected Government?

Mr. Ridley

Whatever happened at Immingham, I want to make it abundantly clear that that matter has been resolved. Both the unions and the employers at Immingham have come to an agreement that that grievance no longer exists. As it was the original cause of the strike and it has been removed, I defy any Labour Member to tell me what on earth is the reason for the strike.

Dr. Oonagh McDonald (Thurrock)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his failure to give a commitment that the Government have no plans to alter or abandon the dock workers' scheme during the lifetime of this Parliament may prolong the strike with damaging consequences for the economy and the docks, including my own at Tilbury? Why cannot the right hon. Gentleman utter the words "no plans to change … during the lifetime of this Parliament"?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Lady knows full well that if the unions had been frightened on this point they could have asked the Government to discuss it either before or after the strike. Let me point out how absurd the position is. We have a strike based—if this is the reason—on stopping the Government doing something that they have said that they will not do. That is clearly an absurd position. It is no good trying to make a meal out of it; there is nothing there at all.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

Has my right hon. Friend had his attention drawn to reports of remarks, made after the so-called vote at Dover this morning, by Mr. Shaun Walsh, the freight shop steward at the eastern docks? He said, "We are not happy with this vote at all. It was two thirds against coming out and one third for. We want to run the port as we are running it now." Is it not disgraceful that the men who work at Dover, many of whom live in my constituency, were denied a ballot? Will my right hon. Friend condemn this latest attempt by the trade union leadership to run away from democracy and force its members to take action that they do not wish to take?

Mr. Ridley

I agree with my hon. and learned Friend and I believe that a proper secret ballot should have been held. I am sure that all hon. Members who are democrats will agree with us that it would have been better to have a proper ballot. In view of that sort of manipulation, the only redress lies in the dockers at Dover deciding for themselves what they want to do, making their own decision and going ahead with it.

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

Will the Secretary of State admit that the Government and the National Coal Board claimed that they had no plans to close pits that are now under threat? The Government's statement that they have no immediate plans to destroy the dock labour scheme is not adequate. The right hon. Gentleman needs to commit the Government for the lifetime of this Parliament.

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to help ACAS, will he give an undertaking that no coal will be brought through non-scheme ports from such countries as Jaruzelski's Poland and be handled by non-scheme labour to break the coal strike? Will the right hon. Gentleman withdraw the free market that he has introduced into port scheme development, which will destroy the scheme by the back door, as we predicted in the House three weeks ago?

Mr. Ridley

I intend to leave it to ACAS, which is independent and has the task of seeking to conciliate between the two sides and seeing whether they can find a solution. I do not intend to pre-empt the efforts of ACAS by giving any pledges of the sort that the hon. Gentleman seeks.

Mr. Mark Robinson (Newport, West)

My right hon. Friend was right to mention the threat to jobs caused by the dispute. Once again, the steel workers at Llanwern find themselves in the firing line. Will my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that if ACAS is unable to resolve the dispute the Government will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure essential supplies to industries that are affected?

Mr. Ridley

My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the threat to jobs. The jobs of some dockers will be at risk if the strike persists, but the jobs of many millions of their fellow workers and trade unionists in industries throughout the land will also be at risk. If any group is clearly identified as job wreckers, it is those who strike on such flimsy grounds as existed in this case.

Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Stockton, South)

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is in the overwhelming interests of everyone that the dispute be ended at the earliest possible opportunity? With that in mind, and now that ACAS has become involved, will the right hon. Gentleman and other Ministers refrain from making provocative statements so that ACAS can get on with the job of getting people back to work?

Mr. Ridley

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the sooner the strike is ended, the better. We hope that ACAS will be able to bring about that conclusion. However, nothing that I or my right hon. Friends have said has been provocative. We have merely been trying to tell the truth to the nation and to the dockers.

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

Will my right hon. Friend restate the Government's responsibility not only for those who wish to go back to work, but for all those who want to go to work anywhere in this country and rely on the economy for their pensions? Will he also restate the Government's commitment to lay contingency plans if they should be needed?

Mr. Ridley

I entirely confirm what my hon. Friend says, and that the Government are determined to maintain the right of those who wish to go to work to do so. I further confirm that the Government will take all necessary precautions and actions to protect the economic life, and the rest of the life, of this country.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to allow questions on the statement to continue for a further 10 minutes.

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

Will the Secretary of State resist any request or demand for any change in the dock regulations from any person or organisation during the lifetime of this Parliament?

Mr. Ridley

I repeat that we have no plans to alter or abolish the dock labour scheme.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that just one of the companies in my constituency, Pirelli, will have to lay off between 1,200 and 1,400 people in two weeks' time unless it can clear its imports from the docks, that an important contract to provide tyres to Toyota is now at risk because it cannot export them, and that the Labour party's support for a bogus strike following upon its wholehearted support of the other bogus strike involving the mining industry shows to those in my constituency and the country at large just which party is the true party of unemployment in this land?

Mr. Ridley

How can Labour Members, who have protested their concern about unemployment year after year in this House, sit there mute, saying nothing in condemnation of the strike, when the jobs of my hon. and learned Friend's constituents and those of many other of my hon. Friends' constituents are at risk? Who are the job wreckers now? Who are the guilty men?

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Does the Secretary of State appreciate that he could not be accused of misleading the House in respect of the commitment that he has given about changing or abolishing the dock labour scheme even if there was such a proposal in the next Queen's Speech? In the nature of things, his words and commitments today can apply only to the present Session unless he gives a commitment that covers the lifetime of this Parliament.

Mr. Ridley

I fear that I must disabuse the hon. Gentleman. He should know that the next Queen's Speech is very far along the road to being drafted.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Southampton, Itchen)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that he has probably bent over backwards to be patient and statesmanlike in his dealings over the dispute? Can he confirm that at this stage the employees, or trade union representatives, are still in breach of the terms and conditions of the national dock labour scheme?

Mr. Ridley

Yes, Sir. The grievous thing is that the strike was called because of an alleged breach, which turned out to be a breach, by the employers, but nobody ever suggested—

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

It cannot be an alleged breach if it is a proven breach.

Mr. Ridley

I said that it was alleged to be a breach, and turned out to be one. When is the hon. Gentleman going to condemn the breach of the scheme which was involved in taking the men out on strike before the dispute had been put to the negotiating and conciliatory machinery?

Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)

Is the Secretary of State aware that his protestations at the Dispatch Box are pathetic? Is he further aware that he personally is the principal cause of the dispute in the docks? It was his hostile and injudicious remarks at the employers' lunch that put a question mark over the dock labour scheme. Moreover, is he aware that we have all read the so-called Ridley report, which advised the Government on how to take on the unions? In pursuit of that report, the Government have made the biggest botch-up of industrial relations to be seen in many of our political lifetimes. He is the guilty party.

Mr. Ridley

Before the strike began, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Employment, in a reply to a question, said: Whilst the operation of the dock labour scheme continues to be questioned, there are no plans to abolish it at present"—[Official Report, 2 July 1984; Vol. 63, c. 42.] That is what I have said too.

Mr. John Townend (Bridlington)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will not allow themselves to be blackmailed by the dockers' trade union, that they will not allow trade unions to dictate what legislation should come before this House, and that if, in future, it is found to be in the national interest to change or abolish the national dock labour scheme, the Government will not feel restrained by today's statement?

Mr. Ridley

I confirm my hon. Friend's view about the need to protect the House with regard to passing such legislation as it sees fit, including legislation on trade unions. However, I fear that I must disappoint him by giving him the same answer that I have given to Opposition Members—that we have no plans to alter or abolish the dock labour scheme.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

Does the Secretary of State realise that if he really wanted a solution to the problem he would have concentrated on the reference to ACAS and would not have made the controversial statements that he has been giving from the Dispatch Box? Trade unionists are worried about confidence, just as investors are about the value of the pound against the dollar. Trade unionists will not have confidence in this Government as long as 4 million people remain unemployed.

Mr. Ridley

Confidence will be restored if the dockers as well as the miners return te, work. I can think of no greater blessing or boon to our overseas competitors and of no greater opportunity for damaging this nation's economy than that offered by these two strikes, particularly as there seems to be no foundation for the dock strike.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)

If the Transport and General Workers Union refuses, in its discussions with ACAS and the employers, to settle the dispute, the situation will become very serious. The people of this country will then see that the NUM and the TGWU are taking on not the Government but the country as a whole. Will my right hon. Friend and, perhaps, the Prime Minister do something that they might be reluctant to do, but which will be very necessary, and call in the TUC to point out to it that there is great danger to the whole trade union movement if it does not get its people back to work and prevent a national catastrophe?

Mr. Ridley

My hon. Friend has rightly drawn attention to the risk to the country, but the two strikes are also putting the livelihoods and jobs of many of those unions' members at risk. The tragedy is that they were not consulted before the action was taken. There is no question about the Government calling in the TUC. It is self-evident, and must be so to the TUC, that the damage done to the trade union movement by those disputes is very great indeed.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

What contingency plans are there to supply fortress Falklands? Is the Secretary of State aware that I have been told by Mr. Derek Tedder of the National Union of Seamen at Avonmouth that no dispensation has been given, that the Romney sailed three hours before the strike started, and that it is extremely doubtful whether the next ship, the Orepesa, will sail? What do the Government intend to do? Is not it time to think of putting the £3 million a day which, according to The Sunday Times, is being spent on fortress Falklands into investment in the docks as well as many other things?

Mr. Ridley

I very much hope that essential ships for the Falklands and St. Helena will be allowed to sail, and that our essential exports and imports will also be allowed to move. However, I am glad to find one Opposition Member who appears to question the point and validity of the strikes.

Mr. Derek Conway (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a factory in my constituency gained an important export order that would create an additional 40 jobs in Shrewsbury, but that those jobs are now in jeopardy as a result of the dispute? Will he do whatever is possible to ensure that the public are aware that the real job wreckers are Opposition Members?

Mr. Ridley

I shall certainly do just that. Perhaps my hon. Friend would care to draw the plight of his constituents and the number of jobs at risk to the attention of the TGWU, in case its heart is softer than those of Opposition Members.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Since the Secretary of State has not seen fit to give an assurance, can he say whether he stands by his earlier wish to make changes in the dock labour scheme?

Mr. Ridley

I have given my assurance, which included the words we shall not "change or abolish the scheme".

Mr. Matthew Parris (Derbyshire, West)

Since both sides have agreed to put the matter to ACAS, what is to stop a return to work while the ACAS report is awaited?

Mr. Ridley

The answer eludes me.

Mr. Prescott

Is the Secretary of State aware that his talks about ballots on this particular day comes a little hard when the courts have declared that the Government are guilty of an illegal act? The Secretary of State has not made clear his intentions for the dock labour scheme. He

says in his statement that he has "no plans" to abolish it, but is he aware that a number of employers have plans to change the scheme?

Can he assure the House that he does not intend to bring forward plans to the House during the life of this Parliament to change the national dock labour scheme? Is he aware that if he could give that assurance he would go a long way to making the matter clear within ACAS?

I have been asked whether I will encourage a return to work. Can the Secretary of State join me in endorsing the statement put out by the trade union at the breakdown of negotiations asking for a condemnation of future breaches of the dock labour scheme and accepting that non-registered labour can be employed on dock work only under the circumstances provided by the dock labour scheme 1967 and subject to prior agreement with the trade union? I fully endorse those words. Can the Secretary of State do the same? If he can, he will see the return of the dockers to work.

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) knows that, whatever the port employers may say, the only way that the scheme can be changed is by legislation in this House. I have given a pledge that the Government have no plans to do that.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the trade union's demand to alter the scheme. That is a matter—

Mr. Prescott

It is not a change in the scheme.

Mr. Ridley

Of course it is a change in the scheme.

Mr. Prescott

The right hon. Gentleman does not understand it.

Mr. Ridley

Of course I understand it. The unions are asking that they and they alone should decide how to classify dockwork and that is a threat to other people's jobs.—[HoN. MEMBERS: "No."] That is what the unions want.

Why did the unions not raise the matter before they went on strike? When did they seek to negotiate with the employers? They suddenly came up with the idea the moment that the Immingham dispute was shot from beneath them. The hon. Gentleman's exposition of his position is disgraceful. Why on earth cannot he get up and say that the strike should be finished and wrapped up, and that the men should go back to work?