HC Deb 05 May 1988 vol 132 cc1017-142 3.30 pm
Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West) (by private notice)

To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the latest developments in the P and O dispute.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Norman Fowler)

The dispute continues, but I understand that P and O are operating the Pride of Kent and the Pride of Bruges between Dover and Zeebrugge.

Unlawful secondary action and picketing have interrupted the operation of a number of ferries owned by other British companies. As a consequence, in an action brought by Sealink, the National Union of Seamen was fined £150,000 on Tuesday and its assets sequestrated. I understand that further discussions between the NUS and Sealink are taking place today in the offices of ACAS.

As with all other industrial disputes, the resolution of the issues must be a matter for the parties, operating within the law and within their economic circumstances.

Mr. Meacher

Is the Secretary of State aware that the National Union of Seamen sequestrator has frozen the pensions of retired NUS members uninvolved in the dispute, has prevented the original and wholly legal dispute from being serviced and has put a stop on business unconnected with the sequestration order, such as death and accident claims? Is not that contrary to the principles of natural justice and is not this much harsher than any previous sequestration?

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that sequestration on the basis of secondary action was wholly unjustified? Is it not a purely legal pretence that the Sealink issue is entirely unconnected with the primary dispute with P and O, given that the chairman of Sealink said: If P and O does win, we are obviously asking our trade unions to accept the same manning levels"? Is the Secretary of State aware that the NUS has offered arbitration, has agreed the phasing-in of the full P and O proposals, with the full £6 million savings within the three years that P and O originally demanded, even though the Channel tunnel is at least five years away? Will the Government now use their good offices to bring P and O back to the negotiating table, as the company's intransigence and unreasonableness are the sole cause of the continuing dispute?

Is the Secretary of State further aware that the current P and O proposals to recruit untrained crews, to cut crewing levels by 20 per cent. and to introduce an 18-hour shift day again put at risk passenger safety only 13 months after the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster? Did he see the "Brass Tacks" programme two nights ago, which revealed dangerous undermanning, the use of unserviceable and unreliable equipment and instances of ships' officers being over-fatigued? Will the Government now exercise their powers under the Merchant Shipping Act 1970 to ensure that industrial safety is paramount—or is the Secretary of State deterred by the £100,000 contribution that P and O made to Tory party funds last year?

Mr. Fowler

The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) cannot come straight from the picket line and expect us to accept what he says as an objective statement of the position in this dispute. He would do much better with regard to the Sealink case if he persuaded the union to accept the ruling of the court and to stop secondary action. It is not remotely helpful to the outcome of this dispute for the Labour party to have joined in, and for Opposition spokesmen to appear on the picket line.

On safety, there is no truth whatsoever in what the hon. Gentleman suggests. There have been general inspections of ships and their equipment, carried out in Rotterdam by Department of Transport surveyors. Emergency procedure drills were conducted before the ships left Rotterdam; and before the ships left service from Dover, emergency procedure drills were witnessed by surveyors with each fresh crew.

So far as an inquiry or arbitration is concerned, ACAS can be brought in at the request of the two parties, but I must emphasise that it is up to the parties. No inquiry will settle issues that relate, apart from anything else, to the commercial judgment of the company, faced with new competition.

The NUS had every opportunity of avoiding sequestration. There is absolutely no doubt about that. The judge said: Members and their leaders have only themselves to blame. This is the clearest possible case of deliberate attempted suicide. With regard to the law, the hon. Member for Oldham, West, and I hope the Opposition and the Leader of the Opposition, must accept that unions are not above the law. If they act in defiance of court orders, they must expect them to be enforced. I hope that he will make clear now his support for the law in these matters.

Mr. Norman Tebbit (Chingford)

Is my right hon. Friend able to say, first, whether there are any political or financial connections between the National Union of Seamen and the Labour party?

Secondly, after the ignorant comments of the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) concerning secondary action, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the objection to secondary action is that it is taken against those who have no means of influencing the outcome of the primary dispute? That is why secondary action is, rightly, outlawed, and why those who suffer from it should have recourse to the courts for relief and damages.

Mr. Fowler

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. It should be recognised that there is no right for people or unions to spread a strike to companies that are not connected with a dispute; and there is no right to stop fellow workers coming to work, or to force people when they fail to persuade. A much better course for the Opposition, rather than joining in this dispute, would be to point out the value of the law in industrial relations and to seek to use their influence to get the NUS to accept it.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

Few in this House would deny that there is a crisis in our merchant fleet, not least with the advent of the Channel tunnel, but does the Secretary of State accept that dialogue and conciliation are much better ways of sorting out these problems than taking up entrenched positions? Will he use the good offices of the Government to encourage such dialogue?

On a constituency matter, is the Secretary of State aware that the P and O ships that link Shetland with the mainland are now at port and will not sail, but that the NUS has agreed that emergency provisions may be carried. In that event, will he encourage P and O to ensure that ships are made available for that purpose? How does the Secretary of State expect messages to get through to the NUS about the emergency supplies required if the offices of the Aberdeen NUS are sequestrated?

Mr. Fowler

That individual case is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. As for the hon. Gentleman's point on negotiation, it is fair to point out that there has already been substantial movement from the original proposals. Crew rostering arrangements have been improved and working days reduced. The hon. Gentleman must accept that the proposals have been sufficiently attractive for more than 1,000 of the staff to accept them and for 5,000 or 6,000 people to work on these ships under those conditions.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some 5,000 P and O and Sealink employees wish to work in Dover and Folkestone? Is he aware that many trade unionists approached me and other Members of Parliament about asking the union to have a secret ballot and that the union refused a secret ballot on P and O's terms? Is my right hon. Friend further aware that the 24 hours on, 24 hours off system of working is already employed by Sealink and that P and O's only requirement is that it wants to pay its employees more than Sealink to work the same system? Is he further aware that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and I are extremely worried about the acts of intimidation and violence in our constituencies?

Mr. Fowler

The House should know that since last Tuesday there have been 14 arrests for various public order offences and 61 reported cases of intimidation, ranging from paint daubing to threatening telephone calls. There should be no dispute in the House about the fact that such events and actions are condemned not only by the Government but by the Opposition Front Bench spokesmen.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the National Union of Seamen is one of the most democratic unions in this country, that it regularly has secret ballots and that the outcome of some of those secret ballots was that a majority of the members decided not to accept the blue book, and certainly not the red book, which P and O has been trying to impose on those workers, a system which, if accepted, would be a form of slave labour?

The right hon. Gentleman talks about keeping to the law. Is he aware that, last Saturday, the port master of Heysham harbour cut the ropes of the Tynwald, the Isle of Man boat, putting all the craft in that harbour in jeopardy? Is that not an illegal act? What action will the Government take to deal with that man? The Government are quick enough to support the union being sequestered. They have one law for the rich and one for the trade unions.

Mr. Fowler

That is absurd. If the hon. Gentleman or his hon. Friends wish to report that action, clearly it will be investigated by the police. It is precisely the same as in any other circumstances. That is what the rule of law means, and it is about time that the hon. Gentleman understood the position.

The hon. Gentleman's remarks about secret ballots and slave labour are again patently absurd. More than 1,000 of the staff of P and O have accepted the conditions and between 5,000 and 6,000 people have applied for the jobs which have been advertised with those conditions.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

Has my right hon. Friend found time to look at early-day motion 1035? Does he agree that the words "in every possible way" are more weasel words from the party which refused to condemn violence during the miners' dispute?

Mr. Fowler

As I have already made clear, it would be in the public interest for the Opposition spokesman who asked this private notice question to make it clear that he and the Opposition are in favour of the union respecting and following the rule of law in this country.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

In considering the dispute, will the Minister have firmly in mind the appalling contraction of the Merchant Navy that has taken place during the past eight years, and the need to avoid any further damage and contraction which a prolonged dispute would involve? Does he agree that the solution to the dispute must come out of arbitration? Will he urge that course on both parties to the dispute?

Mr. Fowler

No, I will not do that. I do not think that that is the right way to proceed. As I have made clear, I think that that is essentially a matter for the parties concerned.

In regard to competition, I have sympathy with the first point made by the right hon. Gentleman, but surely the lesson of what he is saying is that British companies that are trying to be competitive are also trying to protect British jobs. If the ferries become uncompetitive, the only people who will gain will be overseas competitors and overseas union members.

Mr. Ian Bruce (Dorset, South)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that secondary action in the dispute is not only illegal, but has been positively against the interests of the P and O strikers? Surely, in a single movement, they have stopped the NUS being able to support those strikers, and they have forced anybody who wants to go to the continent on a ferry to go on a non-union P and O ferry?

Mr. Fowler

As a result of the secondary action, there has been an interruption to services which has been to the disservice of literally everyone, but most of all to the travelling public and to companies that want to send goods from this country to Europe.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the Minister aware that the use of repressive legislation passed by Parliament to destroy the National Union of Seamen, representing seafarers on whom the nation's welfare has always depended, is absolutely in line with the policies of Mussolini and Hitler, who began their attack upon democracy by obliterating trade unions in Italy and Germany? Following the ban on trade unions at GCHQ and the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan counties, is it not clear that the Government of which he is a member are set on the systematic destruction of democracy in this country?

Mr. Fowler

The right hon. Gentleman is not only being absurd; he is making himself a laughing stock by making such remarks. It is not repressive legislation. There RS a right to work without being harassed, intimidated or threatened. There is a right for people to make up their own minds about whether to cross a picket line and to work. The right hon. Gentleman should respect those individual rights.

Sir Ian Lloyd (Havant)

The very grave allegations made a few moments ago by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) that standards of safety have been seriously compromised by the management of P and O are so serious that they should either be substantiated immediately or withdrawn.

Mr. Fowler

As I have said, the suggestions by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) about safety standards are simply untrue. [Interruption.] I shall tell the hon. Gentleman how I know. The two P and O ferries that have returned to service have been very thoroughly inspected by Department of Transport surveyors. Probably no two ferries have ever been more thoroughly inspected. As my hon. Friend rightly suggests, it would be much better if the hon. Gentleman withdrew those suggestions.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)

Does the Minister agree that the adversarial nature of legal proceedings means that the parties are now being driven into positions from which it will be difficult for them to negotiate, and because the ferry operators now believe that they have the upper hand in those legal proceedings they are merely waiting for the union's resolve to be crushed? Does not the Minister think that he should now reflect and use his good offices to urge the parties to go to arbitration because that is the only sensible way to resolve the dispute?

Mr. Fowler

I do not accept that at all. No objective observer would accept the hon. Gentleman's description of what has taken place. The NUS has been given every opportunity to avoid what has taken place in the courts. The courts have made that clear and the judge has made that clear, and the NUS has only itself to blame.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we are seeing the dying gasps of boneheaded trade unionism, which contrasts very much with the new realism of the electricians and the engineers? Does my right hon. Friend also agree that it is not surprising that the Labour party should support the NUS when Mr. McCluskie is a member of its national executive and there is more interest in the leadership contest between the leader of the Labour party and the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn)?

Mr. Fowler

What we do not want to see are the dying gasps of the British ferry industry and the competitive position of British ferries. That is the point. The course on which the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) seems determined to take his party means that British jobs will again be lost as a result of union action and the hon. Gentleman's support.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that this is a private notice question, which is an extension of Question Time, and we must now move on.

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