HC Deb 17 November 1987 vol 122 cc909-10
13. Mr. Atkinson

To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he has any plans to introduce legislation to abolish the dock labour scheme.

Mr. Nicholls

No. As I have made clear in recent answers to hon. Members, there is no change in the Government's position on this scheme.

Mr. Atkinson

Does my hon. Friend agree that 40 years' experience of the national dock labour scheme shows that employment controls of this kind are positive obstacles —[Interruption.]—to jobs, enterprise and success in our ports and docks and are totally discredited? Will he now count the cost of this scheme and convince himself that its repeal is long overdue?

Mr. Nicholls

I could hardly fail to hear what my hon. Friend said. The points that he makes have been put forcefully to us on a number of occasions, and I am sure that they will be put to us in future. In fairness, I should say to my hon. Friend that a number of major ports in the dock labour scheme are in profit. I repeat that the Government have no present plans to change the position.

Mr. Harry Ewing

If the Minister could not hear his hon. Friend I can assure him that he did not miss anything. Does the Minister understand that any hon. Member who talks about the abolition of the national dock labour scheme simply cannot remember what it was like under the old casual dock labour scheme, when many families who worked in the docks hardly got a day's work each month? The damage that has been done to our dock industry is a result of the decline in our manufacturing industry and the amount of exports going out through our ports.

Mr. Nicholls

If the Government took account of views such as those of the hon. Gentleman, we would still be in the age of the cart horse.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

Has my hon. Friend noticed the difference in opportunities for employment between the ports that are shackled, by this scheme and the ports that are not so shackled such as Felixstowe, Dover and Rotterdam?

Mr. Nicholls

I am well aware of my hon. Friend's interest in this matter and of the facts of the situation.

Mr. Loyden

The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) fails to understand that the strategy of the Government is not to take direct action on the question of the National Dock Labour Board, but, by legislation and by other means, to allow the National Dock Labour Board to wither on the vine. Examples of that are the development of non-scheme ports — that is happening now — and the Felixstowe Bill, which is intended to undermine, and at the end of the day to wreck, the dock labour scheme, which was introduced to protect workers. That is abhorrent to the Tory party.

Mr. Nicholls

There is a certain irony in the fact that I suspect that the hon. Gentleman's assessment of the position will have come as better news to my hon. Friends than my reply.

Mr. Miller

Does my hon. Friend accept that if we are to protect and increase the number of jobs in the ports and in our exporting industries in face of the great and growing discrepancy between our port costs and those abroad, we have a choice? The Opposition will have to persuade their constituents of the need to end the dock labour scheme, or we shall need more Felixstowe Bills, or my hon. Friend will have to act. Will he please act?

Mr. Nicholls

I do not think that I can add anything to the last remark made by my hon. Friend, except to say that his assessment of the situation is more in keeping with reality than that of Opposition Members.

Mr. Strang

Is the Minister aware that the lack of alternative job opportunities and the growing tendency for employers to use casual labour mean that the case for the scheme is stronger than it was a few years ago, and that that is why we welcome the hon. Gentleman's answer today?

Mr. Nicholls

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that the scheme has any popularity, he should talk to his hon. Friends and see how popular registered dockers are among them.