HC Deb 06 April 1989 vol 150 cc337-48 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Norman Fowler)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the future of the dock labour scheme.

The scheme was introduced just after the end of the second world war under the Dock Workers (Regulation of Employment) Act 1946. An amended scheme was brought into being in 1967 and remains in operation today. It now covers 40 main British ports responsible for handling some 70 per cent. of our national trade. A further 35 ports are outside the scheme because they were not significant for cargo handling in the immediate post-war years.

The scheme is administered by the National Dock Labour Board and its 20 local branches which are made up of equal numbers of trade union and employer members. The boards have very wide powers to control employment in scheme ports, including the numbers employed and ultimate decisions on discipline.

Only those who are on the registers of the boards are permitted to do dock work in scheme ports. An employer who, without approval of the board, uses non-registered dock workers commits a criminal offence. The nature of the dock work itself and the exact areas where the scheme applies are subject to statutory definitions which have remained unchanged since the war.

The original purpose of the scheme was to ensure greater regularity of employment for dock workers. However, since then there have been radical changes in cargo-handling technology. Dock work today, by its very nature, requires a permanent and skilled work force. In ports where none of the scheme's restrictions apply, casual working, which was such a feature of dock work before the war, is very small. In big non-scheme ports like Felixstowe and Dover, it is effectively non-existent.

Over the last 10 years the number of dockers employed in non-scheme ports has risen by a third to around 4,000. During the same period the number of registered dock workers has dropped by nearly two thirds, from 27,000 to 9,400 today.

As the House will know, it is a major objective of the Government to remove barriers to employment and in the last year we have published two White Papers in this area. As part of this continuing process the Government have now reviewed the dock labour scheme and I am publishing today a White Paper which sets out our conclusions. In summary, we believe that the scheme suffers from a range of fundamental defects and that the time has now come to put the position right.

The scheme provides a statutory monopoly in dock work. No one other than employers and workers registered by the dock labour boards can engage in dock work. Given the changes in the nature of dock work, this is not only unnecessary but also totally at variance with the practice in any other industry. It has created two classes of employees in the ports—registered dock workers, and the majority of other workers—and it has certainly not secured good industrial relations in scheme ports.

Management is unable to manage its own work force effectively, and restrictive practices add to the costs of the ports. The public have to pay for the costs of the scheme, both as customers for goods that come through the ports, and as taxpayers. Since the early 1970s the taxpayer has contributed over £420 million, in today's prices, in payments for voluntary severance, the only means of reducing any surpluses of registered dock workers. A further £350 million of public money has gone to help certain scheme ports survive.

Just as important is the effect that the existence of the scheme has on prospective investment in scheme port areas. Companies are deterred from investing for fear that they will be caught by the scheme. The Government believe that without this constraint there would be more investment and more jobs in our ports and in their surrounding areas.

In short, the dock labour scheme today is a total anachronism. We rely on our ports for the bulk of our trade. We must ensure that they can prepare for the intensified competition that free movement of goods in the European Community after 1992 will bring.

The scheme will not simply wither away of its own accord. For that to happen, our great historic ports, as well as smaller ports all around the country, would have to close permanently. That would involve abandoning major facilities, with all their natural advantages of location and tidal waters, fixed assets and infrastructure, much of it provided at public expense over many years. Local business activity in port areas would suffer equivalent damage.

The Government have concluded, therefore, that positive action is needed to free the scheme ports from their present artificial constraints. Our intention is to bring all port employers and dock workers into exactly the same position as other employers and other workers. The only way in which this can be effectively achieved is through the abolition of the dock labour scheme. Its amendment or restriction would not remedy present defects, and would merely create new problems.

The Government therefore propose to introduce a Bill to repeal all the existing legislation connected with the scheme. The Bill will provide for the National Dock Labour Board to remain in being temporarily to transfer medical and training facilities as the industry requires, and then to wind up its affairs. The Government will assist financially—for example, by meeting redundancy payments due to board staff.

The legislation will also make special provision for registered dock workers. The Government are introducing a new statutory compensation scheme for anyone made redundant during a transitional period after the scheme is abolished. This will provide for individual payments of up to £35,000 until early 1991, and up to £20,000 in the following 18 months. The costs of these payments will be shared equally between the Government and the individual employer concerned. In addition, as soon as the Bill is enacted, dock workers will acquire all the normal employment protection rights which are available to other workers but from which they are currently excluded by virtue of the scheme.

The necessary Bill will be presented to the House tomorrow. As long as the scheme continues to operate, it will remain the biggest obstacle to a modern and efficient ports industry in this country. That is why the Government have decided that the time has now come to abolish the scheme.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it is an act of wilful sabotage against this country's economic interest to plunge the nation into politically motivated strife in the docks, as his statement this afternoon will do, in order to end a scheme covering only 9,500 workers? None of his allegations today remotely provides any economic justification for the abolition of the scheme. I will deal with it point by point.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about restrictive labour practices. How, then, does he explain that over the past 20 years productivity in scheme ports has increased by 700 per cent? There are not many industries that can match that record of productivity.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about job creation in British maritime industries. If he is really concerned about that, why does he not stop the far bigger job losses from allowing British shipowners to flag out their vessels to foreign flags of convenience?

The right hon. Gentleman talks about inhibiting port development. Why is he so blind to the fact that tens of millions of pounds are today being invested by employers—£30 million at Hull, £8 million at Tilbury, £10 million at Newport. £5 million at Bristol and similarly at Dartford—in new multi-million-pound terminals and huge new riverside ro-ro berths, all in scheme ports?

The right hon. Gentleman says that casual working is a small feature of non-scheme ports. How does he square that with the recent statement of Mr. Peter de Savary that he intends to open a new container terminal on the Isle of Grain with a return to the casual system because that suits his needs best?

How does the right hon. Gentleman justify the statement that the scheme increases port costs when, of the £7 to £15 per tonne charged by British companies, only 1½p can be attributed to the scheme?

Why did the right hon. Gentleman not mention that all our main competitors, such as Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, operate dock labour schemes similar to ours? If they all believe that a dock labour scheme is essential to the efficient control of manpower and for good standards of training, medical—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must be given a fair hearing.

Mr. Meacher

If a dock labour scheme is essential on the continent for the efficient control of manpower and for good standards of training, medical services and amenities, why is it not necessary here?

Is it not absolutely cynical of the Secretary of State to abolish a scheme which provides 3,300 training places a year, from induction courses to advanced cargo handling, in an industry desperately in need of modernisation and increased competitiveness at a time when he is exhorting the rest of industry to invest in training, which it is not doing?

Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that, if there are deficiencies in the scheme, it is because of employers who increase standbys because of their reluctance to train their work force and who will not purchase the mechanical equipment needed for the proper use of their own manpower? Is it not the employers who have brought about the under-use of their labour force by indiscriminately releasing fully fit skilled men from the industry and by allowing the registers to fall below the levels required for a sound, safe and efficient service in the docks?

This statement has a great deal more to do with Thatcherite dogma than with any genuine concern with advancing Britain's economic interest.

Mr. Fowler

No one defends the indefensible as badly as the hon. Gentleman. All he appears to be in favour of is a museum economy in this country. On all the issues that he has raised he is typically wrong.

There is no question but that restrictive practices have reduced the productivity of scheme ports by devices such as ghosting, bobbing and demarcation disputes. If the hon. Gentleman does not know about that, he should look more clearly at the scheme.

The hon. Gentleman asked about employment. In the past 10 years, the number of registered dock workers in scheme ports has dropped from 27,000 to 9,400. Over the same period dock workers in non-scheme ports doubled in number. There is no doubt that the scheme deters investment to the great disbenefit of the port and the area around it. Companies are deterred from investing because of the fear that they will be covered by the scheme.

The hon. Gentleman is also wrong about costs. As far as we can estimate, it adds about 20 per cent. to labour costs and there is no question but that the costs of the scheme have been picked up by the customer and the taxpayer.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about casualism. I obviously accept and sympathise with points made about what the position was like in the past, but it is a non-issue today. Once again, the hon. Gentleman is fighting the battle of half a century ago. There is no evidence of significant casual working in non-scheme ports. No industrial action has been taken on that issue in ports such as Felixstowe and Dover, and it ignores the real requirements of modern ports in a capital-intensive industry.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about other Governments. I remind him that the Socialist Government in New Zealand are doing much the same thing to the dock work regulation scheme in that country. The dock work regulation scheme is a statutory monopoly. It is a criminal offence for an employer to employ anyone other than a registered dock worker. That cannot be right under modern working conditions. It is a historical anachronism that is bad for employment and means that management cannot manage. The scheme is out of date, as is the hon. Gentleman's attitude. We need to rid Britain of the scheme.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

I thank my right hon. Friend for responding so effectively to the widespread Back-Bench opinion in favour of the abolition of the scheme. Does he appreciate that his statement will be welcome on Thameside and in other inner-city dockland areas because of the opportunities that will now open for the redevelopment of dock areas and the creation of far more dock jobs?

Mr. Fowler

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. I pay tribute to him for what he has done in the legitimate campaign against the dock labour scheme. There has been long discussion and much debate about the scheme and there is a growing consensus that it should be abolished. That consensus has been joined not only by Conservative Members but by some in the Opposition parties. One of the reasons for people wanting to see this scheme ended is precisely that which my hon. Friend has given. They see the prospect of development and new jobs and businesses being created.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that the Secretary of State has said that there is to be a Bill on this matter. I shall allow questions to go on until 4.15 and then we shall move to the business statement.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

Many years ago Aneurin Bevan said that Conservatives or Tories were lower than vermin. Until today, I thought that that was an overstatement. However, on the basis of the disgraceful baying that we have heard this afternoon by Conservative Members, who have never been near a dock in their lives, I now think that it is true. Their attitude will not go unnoticed by the people of this country, because they are lower than vermin. I say that without any qualification. Is it not clear that the scheme, which has been in existence all these years, has given stability—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has every right to put his point of view.

Mr. Heffer

—to workers in the industry and to the industry?

Is it not absolutely clear that once the scheme is abolished there will be a return to casual employment? This is one of the most backward steps that the Government have taken. The Minister had better be quite clear that dock workers and those connected with them will resist this proposal in every possible way. I hope that we shall have a clear statement from my colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench that once we get back into office, as we will at the next general election, we will introduce a scheme which operates in every port in the country.

Mr. Fowler

I will leave the hon. Gentleman to take up that issue with his hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher).

I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that many of my hon. Friends represent constituencies which have docks in them. He must not think that he has a monopoly of concern on this subject. Under the scheme there have been job losses. Over the past 10 years, jobs have been reduced from 27,000 to about 9,000. Industrial relations have also been appalling not simply over one year or two years, but over 10 years or 20 years.

I repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Oldham, West about casualism. In non-scheme ports, casual working is minimal, and it scarcely exists in big ports.

With regard to the comments made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heller) about action, I hope that he—and if not he, then the Opposition Front Bench—will confirm that the proper place for the abolition of the scheme to be debated and decided is in this House. The hon. Gentleman should confirm my view that this is a decision for Parliament and say that he will oppose any steps outside Parliament.

Mr. Terence L. Higgins (Worthing)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I have been advocating the abolition of the dock labour scheme for even longer than the abolition of the earnings rule for pensioners, and the achievement of both within a month is something on which the Government should be congratulated?

In the light of the remarks of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heifer), will my right hon. Friend make it clear to those privileged few in the scheme who have benefited for so long at the expense of the consumer and taxpayer that the party is now over, and that the present he is proposing and its terms are, if anything, over-generous and should be enthusiastically accepted by those who must recognise that we cannot look to the past of our industrial relations but must look to the future of our economy?

Mr. Fowler

It has obviously been a good month and a good year for my right hon. Friend. I am not sure whether I would agree with him that our proposal is over-generous. I think that it is fair. We are proposing £35,000 for those with 15 years' service who are made redundant. That is certainly much more generous than any statutory redundancy provision in this country. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will recognise that this is a generous redundancy arrangement. Once the scheme is abolished, there is no reason why the ports presently covered by the scheme should not prosper and why new business should not develop. There is no reason why there cannot be more jobs, particularly in some of the inner-city areas.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

Whatever the necessity for the scheme and its merits when it was introduced, the Minister will agree with us that it has outlived its usefulness. We welcome his announcement to end it. He said that there were two classes of employees in the ports. Does he agree that there are two classes of ports? His announcement today will give scheme ports the opportunity to develop, and it will also bring benefits to them.

As we consider the list of scheme ports, we discover that many are in areas of high unemployment. What analysis has the Minister made of the employment impact of this measure? Although the Bill is to be introduced tomorrow, will the Minister give an undertaking that there will be consultation with the industry, the unions and local authorities in the areas so that job opportunities can be created at the earliest possible opportunity?

Mr. Fowler

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments about the scheme and about the need to abolish it. I believe that they will be widely repeated and echoed throughout the country. The hon. Member for Oldham, West is entirely out of touch with public opinion.

As to jobs, I repeat what I said a moment ago. Without the scheme there is absolutely no reason why we should not see more investment and more business being created in these areas. The result will be more jobs and more employment. That is what I would like to see. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace).

Mr. Malcolm Thornton (Crosby)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that all who use the port of Liverpool, which I had the privilege of serving for 24 years before entering the House, will be delighted by his statement? Will he confirm that a company such as the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company, now that it is no longer the employer of last resort, will no longer be held back from investment in the port because of its position? It will be able to do the sorts of things about which it has been talking to my right hon. Friend's Department, attract trade across the Atlantic and take advantage of the land bridge to Europe from 1992. This is a good step for Liverpool and will be welcomed.

Mr. Fowler

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. When I was Minister of Transport between 1979 and 1981, I went to the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board on a number of occasions. There is potential there, and it is beginning to be realised at what is a first-class port. The ending of the scheme will be good for Liverpool and good for its port.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Will the Minister tell the House why he is acting with such provocative haste by publishing a White Paper today and publishing a Bill tomorrow, when for years employers have been told that if they wanted amendments to the scheme they should be prepared to discuss them and to negotiate? Why is the Secretary of State being so provocative? Why is he prepared to risk confrontation, when there is not one word in the document, published only a few minutes ago, showing that there has been any discussion with the unions or with the work force? The right hon. Gentleman is taking away people's livelihood without giving them any opportunity to respond. If he has trouble, that trouble will have been caused by him and by him alone.

Mr. Fowler

Few subjects have been debated more over the past few years than the dock labour scheme. The issues are clear, and there is no question about what they are. We looked at halfway houses. I do not think that halfway houses exist. The hon. Gentleman talks about compromise and about discussion. Compromise and discussion were not forthcoming from the Transport and General Workers Union or in any of the statements—and I have a whole list of them that I can show the hon. Gentleman—from Mr. Connolly. of the union's ports section.

The hon. Gentleman asks, why now? The reason is that I believe that there is an emerging consensus in this country that the scheme should go. I believe that the public will support a Bill to abolish the dock labour scheme.

Sir Ian Lloyd (Havant)

As someone who has spent much of his life in this industry and has probably seen more ports and port systems than the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heller) has, I greatly welcome the announcement. Seldom have I heard an announcement which I can welcome with greater sincerity, enthusiasm and conviction than this one.

My right hon. Friend suggested that, so far, the total cost of the scheme has been about £800 million, or £30,000 per docker, to defend what has amounted to the most indefensible, unjustifiable and destructive restrictive practices that the economy has known. Does he think that we should now spend what seems on the face of what he has announced a roughly similar sum to compensate those who are still there?

Mr. Fowler

There is a misunderstanding about that. We propose that people who are made redundant should be paid up to £35,000. That means that a registered dock worker who is made redundant would be paid up to £35,000. Obviously it would depend upon his length of service, but that maximum figure would go to those with 15 years' service. It is specifically not the proposition that every registered dock worker should be paid £35,000.

Mr. Alan Roberts (Bootle)

Will the Minister expect cheering similar to that which we heard from Conservative Back Benchers when the Government announce getting rid of security of employment in the legal profession? [Interruption.] Is the Minister aware—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Interruptions take up a lot of extra time.

Mr. Roberts

Is the Minister aware that the scheme is not a bar to employment? It provides security of employment. It has created the successful, profitable port of Liverpool, in my constituency, a successful grain container terminal, and the only free port that the Government have announced which has been successful. That is directly because of the operation of the scheme and the dockers functioning through it in that free port. All that and the good industrial relations on Merseyside are likely to be destroyed by the Minister's statement. If Conservative Members do not think that there are good industrial relations in the port of Liverpool, they should talk to the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Thornton), because there are, and it is a successful port because of them.

Mr. Fowler

The hon. Gentleman started with a peculiar point about the legal profession. He may or may not have noticed that we have put forward proposals on the legal profession. His next two points were no stronger than that. There is no question but that the dock labour scheme is a barrier to employment. Apart from anything else, it prevents investment taking place in any of the scheme areas which will create employment. I will not deal with industrial relations specifically in Liverpool, but industrial relations in scheme ports have been bad over a long period—certainly for the length of the scheme since 1967—and they remain bad today.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, in his Department's submission on the White Paper on expenditure, about £44 million of loans to the National Dock Labour Board must now be written off by Parliament? Will he confirm that that is taxpayers' money which will be lost? Will he confirm further that the port of Dover is self-financing and does not cost the taxpayer that sort of money?

Mr. Fowler

That is certainly the case. That decision has been taken. As has already been announced, in addition to the figures that I have given, employers are paid £125 million in cash—that is, over £200 million in real terms—to cover the cost of severance.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

As somebody who represents a constituency with a large number of dock workers, I cannot welcome the statement as enthusiastically as my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) did. Given that the Government have a commitment to regenerate the inner cities, how soon will the loss of jobs occasioned in London and elsewhere in port communities by the abolition of the scheme be compensated by increased substitute employment for those who may now find it difficult to get work?

Mr. Fowler

There is a great deal more chance of that happening without the scheme than under present circumstances. Much of the development has been in building. One reason for that has been the restrictions of the scheme itself, so that is one way in which the scheme will no longer have an impact. If one wants jobs and investment that use the skills of local people, one does not need the scheme. I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that not only he but the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) is in favour of abolishing the dock labour scheme. According to The Scotsman of 5 April, the hon. Member for Gordon said: It has now become a debilitating, restrictive practice. I agree with that.

Mr. John Townend (Bridlington)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I have been advocating the abolition of the scheme not only for the past 10 years in Parliament, but for the 10 years previously when I was a councillor in Hull and then leader of the county council? Does my right hon. Friend accept that the abolition of the scheme will be welcomed in east Yorkshire? When I was a boy, Hull was the third port, but it has been devastated by the scheme. Now it is not in the first 10 and its container port has been closed as a result of the scheme. Will my right hon. Friend accept that we shall be eternally grateful that we shall be able to compete with Felixstowe on equal terms?

Mr. Fowler

That is right. I want to pay tribute to what my hon. Friend has done, said and campaigned for over the past years. On the last occasion on which I spoke from the Dispatch Box when he was here, he intervened in exchanges on the dock labour scheme. I hope that he is satisfied with the action we have taken.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

What we see today is what happens when little men grapple with big issues. The real intention behind the proposal is to bring down wages and conditions for workers in the docks. There has been no consultation, and no consideration has been given to proposals to extend the benefits of the scheme to the other non-scheme ports, which is the point at issue. Is this not just a decision that this is a time when the Government can afford to face a stoppage in the docks to cut the Chancellor's bloated import figures? The question that has not been answered today is, "Why now?" Why has the decision been taken after 10 years when there is an alternative? If the scheme had the consequences that the Secretary of State claims, it could have been referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, which could then have held a genuine inquiry, not just an assertion of party political prejudice.

Mr. Fowler

If the hon. Gentleman had been listening, he would have heard me answer the question about why the decision has been taken now. Few issues have been more debated and more considered than the dock labour scheme. The issues are clear. There are no halfway houses available and, as the hon. Gentleman will know from his own experience, no compromise has ever been put forward by the Transport and General Workers Union and Mr. Connolly over a long period. For a range of reasons, the scheme is a statutory monopoly and an anachronism with restrictive practices and bad industrial relations. The case for repeal and abolition of the scheme is overwhelming.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Has my right hon. Friend noticed to what extent the little harbours like Teignmouth and Exmouth have prospered without the dock labour scheme, while the whole hinterland of the areas with dock labour schemes has been crucified by the strangulation of their ports? Is my right hon. Friend aware that I am satisfied that our ports can continue to thrive even with fair competition from those which are now released? Will that not give the reality of economic life to the areas previously strangled? Why are the official Opposition opposing the expansion of employment in the areas that will benefit from the measures that my right hon. Friend has announced today?

Mr. Fowler

The hon. Member for Oldham, West will have to answer that question for himself. What my hon. Friend has said is correct. The most significant feature of the past 20 years has been the fact that the non-scheme ports have developed employment, business and investment. At the same time, we have seen a real reduction in employment in the scheme ports. That is a significant contrast. My hon. Friend has put his finger on the point.

Mr. Ron Brown (Edinburgh, Leith)

If the scheme ceases to operate, is not the House and the country giving a charter for cowboys to chase a fast buck at the expense of their employees and of the country? If the dock labour scheme is a hindrance to progress, what about the stock exchange? Will the Secretary of State abolish that? Of course not.

In many ports, including Leith in my constituency, vast efforts have been made to improve productivity and conditions are good for the employees and for the employers. If the Government's proposal goes through, there will be a fight back throughout the country, north and south of the border. The people that I represent will say that the jobs are not to be sold, because they belong to the local community. The Secretary of State must take note of the fact that there will be a struggle.

Mr. Fowler

The first part of the hon. Gentleman's comments took us into areas which even his hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West did not seek to enter. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that this is essentially a decision for Parliament. We shall be putting a White Paper and a Bill before Parliament. A Second Reading will be arranged for the Bill in due course. It seems entirely right that the decision on a statutory scheme such as this should be taken here in Parliament. The hon. Gentleman will get little public support for the vague statements that he is making.

Mr. Allan Stewart (Eastwood)

In contrast to the comments of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Brown), does my right hon. Friend agree with me that his announcement today will be warmly welcomed by industry in Scotland because the scheme has caused great economic damage in Scotland, where an efficient port industry is of particular importance? Does my right hon. Friend further agree that recent events in Aberdeen have highlighted the absurdity and the total unacceptability of the present arrangements?

Mr. Fowler

My hon. Friend is entirely right. There is no question but that the Government's proposal will be welcomed in Scotland. The situation in Aberdeen is one of the anomalies that the scheme inevitably produces and Aberdeen, as well as Scotland as a whole, will welcome the change.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) mentioned my constituency, in which the port of Newport is situated. I wish that the attention of the House had been concentrated on ports such as Newport which has enjoyed extremely good industrial relations and a good degree of prosperity for a number of years. There has also been an increase and a heightening in the skills at that dock, which handles explosives. It has a marvellous record and was paid a tribute by Customs and Excise for its contribution in keeping down the import of drugs into the town. The port also handles cargoes that can deteriorate in a short time.

The message that is being given today to the people of Newport is that this is not the act of a reasonable Government. The Government are to introduce a Bill without giving even 24 hours' notice. This announcement will come as a bolt from the black and from the darkness of the prejudice of a deaf and arrogant elective dictatorship.

One point will worry many dockers—knowing that the likelihood is that this proposal will be implemented. What protection will be given for the pensions of those who are involved in the scheme now?

Mr. Fowler

The proposals do not in any way affect the pension rights of registered dock workers. I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance straight away.

On the strike record, whatever the position in Newport, one point is absolutely certain—the scheme has not ensured good industrial relations. I shall give the hon. Gentleman two figures. Since 1967, when the amended scheme was introduced, we have lost more than 4 million working days because of disputes in scheme ports. Since 1967 there have been 3,569 disputes in scheme ports; and even today the number of days lost in scheme ports is three times the average for industry as a whole.

Dame Peggy Fenner (Medway)

My right hon. Friend will be perfectly well aware of the pleasure that I share in his at last recognising with me that not to have done this would have been the defence of the continuously and continually indefensible. As I made my maiden speech on the iniquities of the closed shop, perhaps my right hon. Friend could tell me whether he will make it a really good year this year and include that one as well.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in Medway, a great port which has had to suffer a good deal from the loss of the dockyards. the workers will appreciate the chance to compete fairly with the non-scheme ports and will look forward to a continuing growth of that lively port industry in my constituency?

Mr. Fowler

I entirely agree, and pay tribute to what my hon. Friend has done over a long time in her statements on the scheme. Perhaps I may add in parenthesis that I already have proposals in a Green Paper on the closed shop.

My hon. Friend is quite correct: our proposals will enable ports like Medway to compete much more effectively than ever before. That is why I say that they will be good not just for non-scheme but for scheme ports. They will be good for industry and for employment.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

Will the Secretary of State note that the public at large may feel it the height of cynicism and arrogance for the Government to seek to reverse the mandates of two past Labour Governments while not having a mandate of their own to abolish the dock labour scheme? Will he note that there will be considerable unease tonight on Teesside where there is a dock registered scheme, where there has been steady expansion with the full co-operation of the work force and where there will be genuine fears that redundancy will be a passport to unemployment, which we have so often seen in the past?

I welcome the comments made by the Secretary of State in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) to the effect that the pension rights will be safeguarded but, when the Bill comes before the House, I can assure the Secretary of State that we shall do all we can to ensure full dockers' rights in the future such as they have had in the past.

Mr. Fowler

It is entirely open and sensible for the hon. Gentleman to say that in the debate on the Bill he and his hon. Friends will want to scrutinise the proposals and to make their own. The right and proper place for that to be done is in Parliament. The scheme is a statutory one. The debate should take place in the House and in Committee in the normal and sensible way in which we organise things.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)

My right hon. Friend is to be warmly congratulated on announcing the abolition of a regressive, expensive and anachronistic scheme. Will he confirm that it has cost the country billions of pounds to maintain the dock labour scheme, that the scheme has deeply damaged investment in ports, that it has damaged employment in those same ports and that it has sent ships fleeing to mainland Europe to deal with their cargo?

Mr. Fowler

That is substantially correct. One of the effects of the scheme has been to bring development blight in particular areas where it operates. When the scheme is removed, one of the results will be more investment and the creation of more new jobs in such areas. I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support.

Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

May I make it clear to the right hon. Gentleman that we do not accept the case that he has put forward this afternoon and that we reject his statement about future investment in these ports and the risk of the reintroduction of casual labour? It is for these reasons, among others, that we will oppose the Bill.

Has the Secretary of State not totally failed to explain to the House why he has made this statement at this time, a timing which, according to a telephone call that I made this morning, makes it as big a surprise to the employers as it is to the union? Is it not hard to resist the conclusion that the Government have decided that, at a time when we have a huge and growing deficit on our balance of payments, it may be expedient to run the risk of a long stoppage in our ports?

Mr. Fowler

No, that is not the position, although. t welcome the tone of what the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) has said rather more than I welcome the tone of what the hon. Member for Oldham, West said.

I will repeat the position. Few subjects have been more debated than the dock labour scheme. The issues are very clear. It is a statutory monopoly. The fact that a criminal offence was created by this scheme is completely out of kilter with anything else in industrial relations today. It is bad for employment and investment, and it means that management cannot manage effectively. I believe that abolition of the scheme will lead to a better future for those areas that are at present covered by the scheme.

What I detected in what the hon. Gentleman said and what I welcomed is that those are matters to be debated essentially in the House. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will make that absolutely clear.