HL Deb 19 June 1972 vol 332 cc29-34

4.2 p.m.


My Lords, with permission I will now repeat a Statement on the docks dispute which has been made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

"Since I made a statement to the House on May 26 the National Joint Council has met three times. The last meeting was on June 13. The Transport and General Workers' Union held a National Delegate Conference on June 14 as a result of which it was decided to accept offers made by the employers and to defer the notice of strike for a period of six weeks.

"The employers' offers on pay and conditions which have now been agreed were, first, an increase of 60p in the daily guaranteed payment. This increases the weekly fall-back guarantee from £20 to £23. Second, men on the temporarily unattached register who apply for severance payment under the terms of the industry's agreement and are selected will receive, in addition to their severance pay, a terminal resettlement grant of £500. Third, a disturbance payment of £50 will be paid to a dock worker who comes on to the temporarily unattached register and does not leave within four weeks. This payment will be made to all dockers who are at present on this register for reasons of redundancy. Lastly, the annual holiday agreement has been adjusted to provide an extra two days' holiday in 1972 and a further three days' holiday in 1973. The agreement providing for these four changes will operate from Monday, June 26.

"As I informed the House in my previous Statement, the Union's claim also included a demand that registered dockers should carry out the work of stuffing and stripping containers at groupage depots. On May 24 the employers proposed that an authoritative joint committee should be established to examine and report on this matter and other associated questions affecting the future employment of dock workers. This was agreed.

"This committee has met on three occasions under the chairmanship of Lord Aldington, Chairman of the Port of London Authority and Mr. Jack Jones, General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, and is to meet again this evening.

"A preliminary statement by this committee was reported to the Docks Delegate Conference on June 14. The committee expects to produce an interim report and it is the union's intention to submit this to the next Delegate Conference which they are calling.

"As the House knows, unofficial strikes were called in all major ports on Friday, June 16, in protest against an order made by the National Industrial Relations Court in connection with the Chobham Farm Dispute. This is a dispute between men in two separate sections of the Transport and General Workers' Union as to who should carry out the work of stuffing and stripping containers at this depot. I understand that decisions have already been taken to resume work in some ports and I hope that by tomorrow a general resumption will have taken place.

"The House will welcome the fact that the pay issues involved in this dispute have been settled. The underlying employment problems are complex. It is for this reason that the employers suggested setting up the joint committee which was an essential part of the recommendation put to the union's Delegate Conference on June 14.

"The House will join with me in hoping that the joint committee will be able to pursue its difficult task in an atmosphere free from industrial action."

My Lords, that is the end of the Statement.


My Lords, I am sure the House will wish to thank the noble Lord for repeating that Statement, most of which I welcome. It seems to me that it indicates the possibilities of reasonable agreement between the appropriate union and the employer when the employer and the union are left to get on with a process which they thoroughly understand. Mr. Jack Jones, we know, is using all his influence to avoid a disastrous docks situation. This was nearly brought to nought by the intervention and the use of legislation about which we warned the House last year when the Industrial Relations Act was going through this House as a Bill. We repeatedly warned the Government of the obvious outcome of such a measure.

It is strange that the situation was saved by the seemingly almost miraculous arrival on the scene of the Official Solicitor, and that there was somewhere handy a well-known Queen's Counsel. I am bound to add that it looks as though what was clear to the Official Solicitor and to the Appeal Court was not clear to the N.I.R.C., and the result—this sort of thing—must inevitably bring the law into contempt. That is the last thing I would wish to see in a democratic country in which we have come, over the years, to respect the law.

Finally, my Lords, I endorse, for the sake of the country, the hope that the joint committee will be able to pursue its difficult task in an atmosphere free from a threat of industrial action. I sincerely hope that that will be the case, and I certainly congratulate the employers concerned and the trade unions on the advance they have made in this whole matter.


My Lords, while agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, that one hopes the joint committee can now proceed with its important work without the threat of industrial action, I should like to ask him whether he is aware that we also deplore the bringing of the law into industrial relations. We believe that this can do very great damage, and that it can never achieve the object, which we all share, of sorting out these matters and reaching a sensible conclusion. In the light of the failure of the National Industrial Relations Court and the obvious consequence that the machinery of contempt must never be used again, will the noble Lord and his Government now introduce Amendments to the Industrial Relations Act so as to remove that procedure from the Statute Book?


My Lords, I can thank the noble Lord, Lord Champion, also for most of what he said. I am grateful to him for his general welcome of this Statement. One of the difficulties that we are in is that this is not a dispute between union and employer but between employee and employee. The noble Lord spoke of the intervention and the use of the National Industrial Relations Court. Well, the Court is there and it is open to people to make applications to it. The noble Lord, Lord Champion, also spoke of the "miraculous" arrival on the scene of the Official Solicitor. When the noble Lord reads in the Press to-morrow the statement which the noble Lord, Lord Denning, made at the opening proceedings in his Court this morning, this matter will be a little clearer than perhaps it is at the moment.

As to the noble Lord's general criticism of the National Industrial Relations Court, these matters are entirely a question of fact. It is not that the N.I.R.C. has in any way not performed as it was expected to perform. It is just that, as in all our proceedings, a higher court can overrule a lower one. As I say, these are questions of fact. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that we shall not be repealing the Industrial Relations Act. For one thing, it is because this Act is on the Statute Book that these circumstances have been brought into the open at this time. It has shown the very great advantages that accrue to unions from being registered under the Act.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord a question which has not yet been asked either by my noble friend on the Front Bench or by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury? Are the Government pleased or displeased at the appearance of the Official Solicitor? It is a simple question, but we should know the answer to it. On a further point, do the Government intend in future to introduce legislation which would prevent the Official Solicitor, whether under instructions from the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack or from some other source, from operating in the way he has?


My Lords, it is not for the Government to be either pleased or displeased with the fact that an independent official carries out his duties in the way he was intended to carry them out.


My Lords, that is an amazing reply; it is not even a Parliamentary reply. Did I understand the noble Lord to say that the Government are indifferent, are neither pleased nor displeased, about this matter? Are they adopting a neutral attitude on an issue such as this? Is the noble Lord aware that as a result of the appearance of the Official Solicitor a critical strike has been avoided? Is that of no consequence to the Government?


My Lords, we are naturally delighted that a critical strike has been avoided, and this is what the Government have been working for all the time. But I was asked to say whether I or the Government were pleased or displeased at the intervention of the Solicitor, rather than at the result of his intervention, and my answer was appropriate.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord to be more explicit? We are told that this dispute has been between members of the same union, but what is the background to the dispute? Is it not a fact that Chobham Farm depot has been established within a few miles of, and has been taking work away from, dockland? Is not that the real source of the trouble? May I ask the noble Lord to be rather more explicit in explaining the background to this dispute?


My Lords, it is a fact that this particular container depot is outside the port area, but it is not very far from it. I do not think it would be very appropriate for me to go into the facts now. An appeal is being made to your Lordships' House and we should leave it there for the time being.