HL Deb 26 May 1966 vol 274 cc1470-82

2.53 p.m.

Order of the Day read for the consideration of The Queen's Message of Monday last.

THE EARL OF LONGFORD rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, thanking Her Majesty for Her Most Gracious Message communicating to this House Her Majesty's Declaration that a State of Emergency exists within the meaning of the Emergency Powers Act 1920. The noble Earl said: My Lords, there are two Motions which stand in my name on the Order Paper, but perhaps it would, be convenient if we were to arrange that whatever discussion takes place should take place on the first one, which I now move, on the understanding that when we come to the second Motion it will be taken formally. I am under the impression that this is acceptable to the House.

I am sure the House will agree that anything we say on this serious matter this afternoon should not in any way prejudice as early a settlement as possible of the strike by the National Union of Seamen. I do not propose to give a review of the strike or of the attempts which have been made, and are still being made, to settle that dispute. Still less do I intend, nor, I am sure, would the House wish me, to criticise one side or the other to that dispute, or to attempt to attribute responsibility for the present difficult situation. We are concerned to-day solely with the Government's responsibility for maintaining the flow of commodities essential to the life of the community. It is because of this responsibility alone that Her Majesty was advised to declare a State of Emergency.

As your Lordships are aware, the Proclamation was made on Monday, May 23; the Emergency Regulations were made and laid before Parliament on the same day, and came into operation on May 24. The Proclamation was under the Emergency Powers Act 1920, which provides, that if at any time it appears to Her Majesty that there have occurred or are about to occur events of such a nature … as to be calculated by interfering with the supply and distribution of food, water, fuel, or light, or with the means of locomotion, to deprive the community, or any substantial part of the community, of the essentials of life, Her Majesty may, by Proclamation … declare that a State of Emergency exists. The Regulations which were laid before Parliament last Monday will lapse next week unless your Lordships and Members of another place now resolve that those Regulations should be continued. If your Lordships so approve, they will continue in operation for as long as the Proclamation of Emergency continues. Under Section 1 of the Act of 1920 this will be for one month only. The duration of the emergency can then be extended only by a further Proclamation.

The powers conferred by these Regulations are of necessity wide, but I should make it clear right away that our sole purpose in asking for these powers now is to ensure that we should have them available without delay, should that become necessary. I wish to make it clear, as I told the House the other day, that the Government have no intention of making use of these powers unless and until the needs of the situation compel us to do so. There will be no question of premature or unnecessary use of these Regulations. At the moment their purpose is precautionary. I should like to repeat that once again. Thirty-four Regulations sounds a fearsomely substantial and, indeed, complicated assortment of powers; and as I said just now, the powers they confer are wide. But now that your Lordships have had an opportunity of studying them I think you will agree that they are neither as Draconian nor as difficult as things might at first sight suggest.

My noble friend Lord Stonham will be replying to any debate that takes place, and he will deal with any particular points which your Lordships may wish to raise about individual Regulations. I am sure that your Lordships would not wish me now to attempt to explain the Regulations in any detail. All these Regulations have appeared on previous occasions, with the following exceptions: Nos. 7, 8, 14, 15, 18, 20 and 21. Of these, by far the most important is Regulation No. 18, which enables the Minister of Agriculture to regulate by order the maximum prices of foodstuffs. I should like to stress clearly that supplies of food are at present adequate, and that the food traders have promised their fullest co-operation in keeping prices steady. This provision, therefore, like the others, is merely a reserve power in case of any later developments which might make it necessary to regulate food prices. The situation will be closely watched, and the powers used (I cannot repeat this too often), only if it becomes essential to do so.

Broadly, the Regulations enable Ministers to control the supply and distribution of goods which are the essentials of life, such as fuel and food, in which shortages might occur during an emergency. Others enable Ministers to waive statutory obligations which would hamper the movement of essential supplies. Others give powers of requisition, should these be necessary for the maintenance of essential supplies. There are also provisions for enforcement.

I would emphasise again that these Regulations are not made against the National Union of Seamen. The Government are acting to discharge their responsibility to the nation for securing the maintenance of the essentials of life. I now therefore ask your Lordships to discharge your responsibility, by resolving that the Address to Her Majesty, thanking her for Her Most Gracious Message be approved; and thereafter, when that is completed, I would ask your Lordships to resolve that these Regulations should continue while this State of Emergency by Proclamation is in force. I hope the House will support these Motions, and will feel, as I do, that in this very difficult situation the wisest course is for nothing to be said which could possibly exacerbate a position which is already fraught with so many troubles for our country. I beg to move the first Motion.

Moved. That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, thanking Her Majesty for Her Most Gracious Message communicating to this House Her Majesty's Declaration that a state of emergency exists within the meaning of the Emergency Powers Act 1920.—(The Earl of Longford.)

3.1 p.m.


My Lords, it is the duty of the Government—any Government—to ensure that food and supplies and fuel and power are available to the people of this country, and should there be a situation in which those supplies are threatened then the Government must take action. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, has explained to your Lordships about the grave situation which may arise as a result of the seamen's strike, and I think that his remarks were emphasised by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in a speech he made last night in another place. Just as the noble Earl did not, I do not intend to discuss the issues of the strike; no good can come of that and, I should have thought, nothing but harm at this stage. All that one can say is that every one of us, on whichever side of the House we sit, must hope that the strike will end as soon as possible.

There can be no doubt that Lord Longford has made out an unanswerable case for the imposition of a State of Emergency and for Regulations to ensure the continuance of essential supplies to this country. I do not intend, as he did not, to go into any detail about the powers asked for by the Government. I note that they are not to be applied unless it is vitally necessary, and that they are purely precautionary. But I do not think that I could agree with him that they are not Draconian. I should have thought that these Regulations were really very severe indeed, and very comprehensive. As a general rule, I should have thought it a mistake that the Government should ask for powers which they do not intend to use except in the last resort. In this case, however, I think that your Lordships would be justified in giving your assent, for this evening both Houses of Parliament rise for a fortnight and there might well be unavoidable delay unless some latitude were given to the Government in this direction.

However, I think it is perhaps just as well to note that the powers asked for go much wider than those which were asked for by the Government in 1955. Indeed, in many ways they are nearly as all-embracing as the powers which were required in the 1926 General Strike. For example, by Emergency Regulation No. 23 it is possible for competent authorities (and "competent authorities" are described as being "a Secretary of State"—any Secretary of State—"and the Minister of Public Building and Works"), if they consider it necessary or expedient, to take possession of any land. And there are provisions, as the noble Earl has said, for regulating the maximum prices of various foodstuffs, for requisitioning chattels and many other things, which in normal circumstances, would be a gross interference with private liberty and private possessions. We must all hope that it will not be necessary for these powers to be used widely, or indeed at all. But, as I say, I think that in the circumstances it is reasonable for the Government to ask for your Lordships' Assent to these regulations.

I should like an assurance from the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, who I understand is to intervene later in the debate, that as soon as the strike is settled these Regulations will be withdrawn at the very first opportunity. Perhaps one might hope that the gravity of the situation, the economic damage, and the possible hardship to innocent people which the strike will cause will be underlined by the introduction of these emergency powers. Those of us who sit on these Benches sincerely hope that they will be an additional inducement to the settling of the strike.

3.5 p.m.


My Lords, I think the noble Earl the Leader of the House need have no worry about these two Motions being passed by your Lordships' House. As the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, has said, we regret that these powers are necessary, and it cannot be too much underlined that they are precautionary, particularly to what the noble Earl calls one side of this dispute. But I would remind him and the House that there are not merely two sides to the dispute: there are three sides. And the biggest side is the consumer, the public, for whom the Government are the watchdog and are responsible.

Without going into detail, or making criticism which might be in any way embarrassing, we on the Liberal Benches feel that there has been an extraordinary lack of action since the year 1894, when the Merchant Shipping Act, and many other Acts of the same sort were passed. Neither this Government nor their predecessors have taken any steps to bring these Acts up to date and to see that the law is fair, both to the men—and particularly the men—and to the employers. The Mercantile Navy has always had our great admiration. Many of us feel that the men may have been rather misguided this time, as perhaps have the employers, but it is the public who are suffering the unfairness of what is happening. I can only say that, although the Government's action is late, it is none the less welcome. We hope that the Regulations will never have to be put into operation. The Government, however, can certainly rely on support from these Benches.

3.7 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Longford, and the noble Lords, Lord Carrington and Lord Rea, have shown restraint in refraining on this occasion to discuss the issues of the strike itself which has necessitated the Emergency Regulations being laid before this House. I hope that in what I have to say I shall indicate that I share the intention to avoid anything which could exacerbate or embarrass such a serious situation. Clearly it is our profound hope that it will not prove necessary to implement these Regulations. It is, however, in the interest of the nation that powers to do so should be sought and should be granted.

It is in those same interests, I would submit, that the Court of Inquiry into the dispute should take place immediately. I would, however, plead that their terms of reference should be wider than those for a normal kind of industrial dispute and should include human relationships as well as wages and conditions. In saying this I feel confident that I am voicing the views of those who sit on these Benches. If ever a section of the community was in a special circumstance it is the seafaring community of this country. This is not just a normal employer—employee conflict taking place annually. More than fifty years have passed since the seamen's last official dispute, although the last six years have seen growing dissatisfaction among seamen. The nation should have been warned long before this. This is not a struggle solely for money, although the cost cannot be ignored.

Let us examine the cold facts logically. More than 65,000 men sail the seas under an Act of Parliament drawn up in the year 1894, 72 years ago. This period covers the most rapid advances in technology and also in the understanding of human relations and conditions of work. At sea there has been an advance in technology; there has also been advance in conditions. The need for improvement in human relations remains. This cannot be achieved by a normal machinery for settling industrial disputes. The relationship between employer and employed must inevitably be one that is peculiar to the situation involved. However men may change laws or reach further and newer agreements, a ship's crew will always be a community at sea, a community tightly bound according to the size of the ship which is their world. Their life cannot be compared in its entirety to any other industrial division.

Each member of the crew of any ship, whether he be captain, able seaman, or cabin boy, has his specialised duties in that community. To compare each task aboard a ship with a similar task on land is false. A fitter on a ship requires the same skill as a fitter on a bench in a factory. The captain requires initiative and ability analogous to that of a managing director in a board-room. But, over and above these skills, qualities are required which must be applied in a manner that is different from that of any other profession. However we may advance in technological development, nature determines the conditions in which these men work. The purpose of the crew is to deliver their small portable island from A to B safely, and this requires, probably more than any other quality, the loyalty of every man of the crew to the community to which he belongs. This quality, loyalty, applies of course in other trades, but the conditions of work there do not call for it in quite the same way.

Human dignity must always be the essence of the relationship between employer and employed, and this must be the basis of negotiations between the owners and the seamen's union. It may well be argued that to convene a Court of Inquiry while a dispute is in operation is creating a precedent—an inquiry taking place whilst a pistol is held at the head of the nation. But it is the task of Her Majesty's Government to see that justice is done for both parties, whether the pistol is there or not. Equally, it is wrong to deny justice because a threat is in operation.

It is sad that seven weeks have passed since either side in this dispute has been officially in contact. I would say this to my friends of the seamen's union, "Your point has been made. The nation is reminded that almost one in three of your members lost their lives during the war. To stand doggedly on a stock phrase, 'a 40-hour week', is not helpful." That phrase was first used by the craft unions 123 years ago. It was then thought to be Utopia. It may well go a long way in some directions, and in some trades, towards Utopia, but it could also have grave repercussions. In any event, its applicability under the conditions of a ship at sea raises special questions. Is it not time, now that we are all aware of the problem facing the shipowners and the seamen, that rather than bring the nation to its knees—and every hour adds to and extends the bitterness, and the intractability of finding a solution—the seamen's union should get their ships to sea? Whether we be seamen, shipowners or standers-by we are all part of the nation. This dispute must not end in a victory for either party or for the Government. It must end in victory for common sense and justice.

The most important considerations to any trade union leader must be: Are my demands just? Is there any other means of gaining these demands without further conflict? I believe there is. To the owner the considerations must be: Are the demands just? Can industry afford it, and if not, why not? An inquiry would find this out. An impartial, immediate inquiry by a panel much broader than the normal machinery for a trades dispute inquiry would answer these questions, and could relieve both parties and the nation from a grave threat to our well-being.

3.14 p.m.


My Lords, no one, I think, on any of the Benches in this House, would desire to dispute the wisdom of the Government in taking steps to endow themselves with powers to deal with what may easily become a very serious situation. There is no point of contention on that and, like the right reverend Prelate who has just spoken, I would not wish to say anything which could appear to be taking sides, in any shape or form, with either of the parties to the dispute. However, I would say that to my ears some of the phrases which fell from the right reverend Prelate seemed very much like appealing to one side in the dispute rather than to the other side. I just mention that because that is the way it struck me, and that is the way I think it will be seen when it is read.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord which phrases?


The part where he appealed to the National Union of Seamen. He laid special stress on that point. There are two sides to this dispute. There are the shipowners on the one side, and the seamen on the other; and while it is perfectly true that the seamen could end the dispute by accepting the terms of the employers, or, alternatively, by carrying on with the work pending negotiations, it remains true that it could be solved by the shipowners themselves improving their offer. We must not forget that.


My Lords, may I intervene? There may be something wrong with the acoustics in this Chamber, but I distinctly heard the right reverend Prelate appeal to the employers as well as to the seamen.


I listened to the phrases very carefully, and I am perfectly sure that what I have said will be sustained by the actual reading of the speech.


My Lords, may I be allowed to intervene again? If the noble Lord gathered from the words that I said, that I was in any way weighting my argument on either side of this dispute, I should say that this was certainly not my intention, and I endeavoured to weigh those words as carefully as I could.


That may be. But some very loose language has been used about this dispute, and some of it in very high places. It has been stated that this strike is a strike against the State. I think that would be repudiated strongly by all sections of the trade union movement. So let us be careful just exactly what we say in regard to a dispute of this character.

It is well known that the Emergency Powers Act 1920, under which the Government have made these Regulations, for use if and when necessary, was passed in the teeth of opposition from the trade union movement. The Act has a bad history. It gives tremendous powers. It gives powers, without any shape or form, of summary arrest to a constable who suspects that someone is breaking a Regulation. It gives tremendous power which could in certain circumstances be very much abused. I should like to ask this question: Were either the British Employers' Confederation or the Trades Union Congress consulted before the Government thought it necessary to take these powers?

3.18 p.m.


My Lords, I am most grateful, and Her Majesty's Government are most grateful, to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, the Leader of the Opposition, for the manner in which he has received this Motion and for the support which, on behalf of the Opposition, he has given. I should also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Rea, for his attitude on the matter.

There are very few points for me to answer. One small point which the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, mentioned was that Regulation 23 was not used in 1955. That is true. But of course, on a previous occasion, in 1949, when there was a somewhat similar crisis, requisitioning powers were available in Defence Regulations, and therefore there was no need for a special Regulation. Indeed, some of the additional Regulations are included now only because of a new need—for example tests for vehicles which have come in since 1955.

I would reaffirm that these powers have been taken only to meet the event—we hope the unlikely event—that they will need to be used, but I think the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, agreed that the case for action was answerable, and that the Government were right to assume the powers. The noble Lord also asked for an assurance that the powers would be ended immediately they were no longer required. I can give that assurance at once. Indeed, it can be assumed that as soon as the emergency comes to an end the Proclamation will be revoked, and the Regulations will then automatically lapse.

The noble Lord, Lord Rea, said there were three sides, and that the most important side was that of the consumer interest. I think he was inclined, quite fairly, to criticise the fact that there had been an apparent delay, or an apparent lack of action, in dealing with the difficulties which are now felt over the Merchant Shipping Act 1894. I would not have it felt that there has been no action, because both under the previous Government and under the present Government, over a period of nearly six years, there has been constant effort in this matter. But this is an enormous document, with many other ancillary and additional Acts. Indeed, Part II, which is the one that mainly concerns the Seamen's Union, has literally hundreds of provisions.

Since 1960, both the shipowners' and the seafarers' organisations have had prolonged discussions, and towards the end of 1963 the Ministry of Transport, after these discussions, called both sides together. There were then many days of hard work by the Ministry of Transport and the Board of Trade, resulting in the publication of an initial, detailed review in March last year. This was then, of course, considered by both sides, and 40 foolscap pages of detailed proposals were submitted to both the shipowners and the seamen. We received comments from the shipowners in January of this year and from the seamen in March of this year, but, of course, the present events stopped any further action being taken. We shall press on as quickly as we can.

The right reverend Prelate asked that the Government should proceed as quickly as possible, without any delay, to an inquiry. If he waits for a few more minutes, when my noble friend Lord Champion will be making a Statement, he will receive a complete answer to his plea in that respect. I hope that the right reverend Prelate and my noble friend Lord Citrine will not expect me to enter into any of the points they raised. I think that the note on which my noble Leader opened the debate, and the response that he received from the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition, ought to be the keynote in this matter, and that we can all join together in hoping that that wisdom will be disseminated outside, and so help to bring to an end a dispute which we all deplore.


My Lords, before the Question is put, could the noble Lord indicate, in view of the expanded connections between British firms and Northern Ireland (and I was in Belfast yesterday), whether any action under these Regulations would apply automatically without any further action by the Northern Ireland Parliament being required? Because he will remember that the present conditions as a result of the bank strike in Northern Ireland have produced an exceptional position which is quite grave in the relationship between these different firms.


My Lords, as the noble Lord is aware, the Government of Northern Ireland have autonomy in these matters, but apparently the noble Lord is not aware that to-day the Government of Northern Ireland have issued a Proclamation of Emergency. Presumably, they will be taking steps, although not at our direction, similar to those that we are taking, to protect the interests of Northern Ireland citizens.


The noble Lord who spoke for the Government was quite right in saying that it would be undesirable that anything should be said which appeared to enlarge the area of discussion, but I asked a simple question—


Order, order‡


—and I am going to repeat my question. My question was: were the Trades Union Congress or the British Employers' Confederation consulted before the Government took this power? That is the question. If the Government do not answer it, the inference will be drawn that the organisations were not consulted.

On Question, Motion agreed to: the said Address to be presented to Her Majesty by the Lords with White Staves.