HL Deb 18 July 1983 vol 443 cc1027-36

6.17 p.m.

Viscount St. Davids rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what action they intend to take in view of the present effects of the Dock Labour Acts, whether they are contemplating legislation, and, if so, what would be its nature.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I rise to ask the Question I have on the Order Paper. When a Goverment promote an Act of Parliament they usually expect it to do good, and they are very generally right. They are also usually pretty sure that it will do some harm. It is quite difficult to produce an Act of Parliament that produces no harm whatever, but the harm is usually expected to be comparatively unimportant. The Dock Labour Acts are very much in this category. They produced a great deal of good when they started, as most Acts do. They went through a long period of stability when they continued to do good, but, I am afraid, this is not a very stable world. Things have a habit of changing. What hit the Dock Labour Acts was containerisation. When container traffic came in, and later on the Ro-ro ship (on which container-carrying lorries rolled on board on one side of the sea and rolled off on the other), very many fewer dockers were needed, and the Dock Labour Acts started to go wrong.

The Acts then went through the process, which again is very common with Acts of Parliament, that the good that they did gradually decreased, while the damage that they did increased; there would come a point logically where they were doing more harm than good and when they should be repealed. But this very seldom seems to happen. Acts of Parliament, once they are on the statute book, seem to be allowed to stay there while they sink into ever greater disfavour, largely, no doubt, through political indolence or mere lack of parliamentary time. They end up in a state where they actually start harming the very people they were originally meant to help.

The Dock Labour Acts performed a very valuable purpose at the beginning. Dock labourers were very badly paid, and work was sporadic. It was difficult to get a decent living by it, and as a result, the dock labourers were not available at all times to load and unload ships. Very often, ships had to wait before they could be loaded or unloaded. The whole system was very unsatisfactory. So these Acts were produced. They laid down a number of our major ports to which they were to refer. They stated that all the dock labourers in those ports were to be listed. They stated that dock labour could be done only by these listed labourers. They laid down that the labourers were to be continuously employed by certain listed port employers, or indeed by the port authorities themselves. They laid down a levy which was to pay for all this. Dock labour boards were to be appointed to say what dock labour was, and finally a National Dock Labour Board was to be appointed to keep control of the whole system.

So far, so good. As I say, it was the coming of the Ro-ro ship and the complete change in the handling of cargo which put an end to this. Dock labourers had less work to do, their numbers started to diminish. As their numbers diminished, this highly complicated and expensive system became more and more of a burden, and the cost of registered dock labour went up just at the time when the cost of dock labour in the non-scheduled ports went down.

The difference has now reached a point which can be put quite simply. In 1950 there were 4,500 dockers in the Port of London alone. There are now fewer than 500 there, and the number is still dropping. The cost of registered dock labour as against unregistered dock labour in the non-scheduled ports is now as 7 to 3; in other words, it costs more than twice as much to give the work to a registered dock labourer. This system cannot possibly go on. No system could survive a difference like that.

The dock labourers tried two ways out. One was to go on strike, which predictably did not help; the other was to create a positively Byzantine set of restrictions in an effort to keep as much work as possible listed as dock labour and therefore keep it to themselves. The result, again predictably, was to send the registered ports further and further down the drain.

What is to be done about it? One thing that can always be done, of course, is nothing. If you leave a problem for long enough, quite often it will go away. But in this case one thing is quite certain: if you leave the problem much longer, all the dockers will go away. The problem will solve itself in that fashion, but of course at the cost of killing off all our major historic ports. That, I am sure your Lordships will agree, is quite unacceptable.

There are those who would like to see all the Dock Labour Acts simply torn up. But we cannot just do that. There are still dock labourers and they have rights; and there are a number of other complications, though I shall not put them all to your Lordships at this late hour. But one just cannot do that, certainly not in a hurry.

What is really needed is a detailed study to be undertaken with some urgency, but making sure that it is thorough, taking a little time over it, though not too much because the damage is going on, and, finally, putting something on the statute book to sort out this matter. But it is complicated, very complicated indeed. I have just sat through seven days of a dock labour arbitration tribunal, in which an unfortunate small firm of inland shipowners tried to get permission to take cargo in and out of the Port of London—which, I believe, is one of the things that the Government would like to see happen. I may be considered biased in this, and so I shall tell your Lordships of just two remarks made by members of the tribunal, who might be assumed to be both intelligent and neutral observers. The chairman of the tribunal said that he was amazed that there was any traffic at all, in or out of the Port of London. Another member of the tribunal—

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, if I may interrupt the noble Viscount for a moment, I would point out that I think he is in danger of breaching the sub judicerule; at least that is what I am currently advised.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I am not quoting exactly. I am being very careful not to quote exactly; besides which, the case is at an end. I have been very careful about that in my timing in putting down the Question. Another member of the tribunal said that it was quite clear why the Rhine was busy and the Port of London was dying. That is the position we are in. Something must be done. It should not be done in too much of a hurry, but the work needed to do it should be done very thoroughly, and done now.

6.28 p.m.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, I should like to begin my speech by agreeing with a very large part of what the noble Viscount has said—I do not agree with it entirely, but I agree with a very large part of it—and by thanking him for raising the issue this evening in this House, because it gives us an opportunity to do two things. It gives us an opportunity, first, to discuss the real, pressing problem of what the noble Viscount says, quite rightly, is a vital British industry, and, secondly, to raise a number of general issues about how that industry has come to its present stage. It is an industry which, I suppose, has undergone one of the most consistent, systematic, sets of investigations, inquiries, and various forms of Government intervention, based on inquiry, investigation, and, in the end legislation, of almost any industry in this country. Yet it comes to be in its present state, and maybe we could learn a few lessons from that situation.

With regard to the noble Viscount's remarks about the present position of the industry, I think that I agree with almost everything that he said. All I should want to add is that, as he would admit, the position has not given any degree of security to the dockers themselves. There is still great uncertainty about the scope for dock work within the Dock Work Regulation Act. So far as one can tell from the figures in the latest report available of the National Dock Labour Board, which, I am afraid, is for 1981—there is not yet a 1982 report—the rate of decline of registered dockers is about 20 per cent. a year. If the situation went on like that, then, as the noble Viscount suggested, they would be all gone by about 1987. Even though there is a decline in the total number registered of something like 20 per cent. a year, there is a further surplus to requirements of those left of something like 18 per cent. a year. Yet there is a rate of voluntary severance from the industry, if the present situation resembles that described in the annual report of the National Dock Labour Board in 1981, of something like 5,000 dockers a year. So the situation is extremely uncertain.

The first question that I should like to put to the noble Lord who replies for the Government is whether the Government and the National Dock Labour Board have any idea when the figures are going to change direction. If the rate of decline continues at 20 per cent. a year, all existing dockers will be gone by 1987. Oh the other hand, the industry stated in the National Dock Labour Board report in 1981 that it thought that the figure would flatten out at something like 14,000 dockers. It should be down to that about now or possibly next year. Do the Government or the National Dock Labour Board, which is presumably in contact with the Government, still subscribe to the view that this progressive decline will somehow end and flatten out at something like 10,000 or 14,000 dockers? If that is the case, the situation may be containable. If it is not and if the figures have had to be revised, I hope that the Government will say so. It is then that some of the more apocalyptic suggestions put forward by the noble Viscount come into operation.

We have to ask ourselves, as did the noble Viscount: what is the solution to all this? He considered a number of alternatives. One that he did not consider—I am prepared to say myself that I do not think it is a solution at this moment and I do not think that he would disagree—is an extension of the areas of the Dock Work Regulation Act. Your Lordships will no doubt remember that when this Act was introduced by the previous Government in 1976, it was originally proposed to put a corridor around the existing ports, indeed around the British Isles, that was to be five miles wide. All classified dockwork within that five-mile radius was to be the province of workers registered under the new dock labour scheme. In this House, in the latter stages of the Bill, I think, the Bill was amended so that the corridor was reduced to half a mile. It was defined in such a way that the corridor did not run all the way round the United Kingdom but only half a mile out from National Dock Labour Board ports. It would be easy to suggest, as some people may do, that the solution would be to return to the original objectives of the 1976 Act. I do not believe that this is possible. It is worth while quickly saying why it is not possible. The noble Viscount suggested, I think, in his speech why it is not possible. I agree with him.

It is not possible because the 1976 Act misconceived the central problem. Those responsible for the 1976 Act thought, as there were grounds for thinking at the time, that the problem arose out of the dispersal of dockwork away from the traditional areas of dockwork and the giving of dockwork to workers who were not registered dockers. Therefore, if you could extend the area of registered dockwork and define registered dockwork in a sufficiently wide way, you could solve the employment and job security problems of the registered docker, and you could create within the area of the National Dock Labour Board a viable labour force that could become a permanent, efficient and mobile labour force. That turned out to be an erroneous diagnosis of the problem.

The basic problem was not the diffusion of dock work, although it took place. The basic problem was the disappearance of dock work. There are relatively few full-time dockers outside the area of the National Dock Labour Board. There are probably more full-time dockers still within the province of the National Dock Labour Board than outside its province because containerisation. roll-on roll-off, and all kinds of other technological innovation within the industry have almost destroyed the old kind of dockwork. No form of legal regulation to extend geographical boundaries can deal with that problem.

I do not think that there is any solution by extending the areas of the National Dock Labour Board Scheme. Nor do I think, as the noble Viscount said, that there is any solution in abolishing all these Acts. I am, however, bound to say that in some ways—I do not wish to be partisan—one might have expected the present Government to take this way out through the Tebbitisation of the National Dock Labour Board or what I would call Book One of Adam Smith, the removal of all forms of legal regulation and all protection for registered dock workers, freeing the labour market for dock workers in the same way as the Government want to free the labour market in the area of wages councils, the area covered by fair wages regulations, and so on.

I come now to my second question. For all the reasons put so well by the noble Viscount, this would be a disastrous policy. Not only would it destroy the central dock areas which are still crucial to this country. It would produce again what we have not seen for a good number of years—something which, on the whole, the National Dock Labour Board Scheme has saved us from. We would once again see mass industrial action in the area of Britain's docks. This, for all kinds of reasons, would be a disastrous way forward. I would like the Government to say so. I should like the Government to say tonight that, whatever solutions they may have in mind for the area of the National Dock Labour Board, they do not envisage the total and complete Tebbitisation of legal regulation of registered dock workers and the total abolition of all forms of legal regulation.

I come to the third proposal that has been suggested by the noble Viscount; that is, another inquiry. I am bound to say that I approach this with great reluctance. We talked earlier today about brim measures. The dock industry is brimful of such measures. It has had 19 investigations since 1920. It is arguable that all of them have got the problem wrong. What they have done really is to design a policy to deal with the existing problem, not appreciating that a new problem had taken its place. For example, the Devlin Report which was excellent on the issue of decasualisation failed completely to take into account the effect of containerisation.

The ACAS report and the reports before the introduction of the 1976 Act failed completely to understand how the problem was not one of diffusion but one of job loss. It is therefore with great reluctance that I come to the idea of yet another inquiry. I come to it simply because I cannot think of an immediate alternative to yet another inquiry. I am always prepared to take back that proposal if the Government can come up tonight and say what is their alternative. In the light of that, I should like to indicate two areas that any future inquiry might like to look into—.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, is the noble Lord really saying that when he cannot think of a solution to a problem he will suggest an inquiry? I find that absolutely terrifying. I have great confidence in the noble Lord. There must be a large number of matters on which he cannot think of a solution. Are we to have an inquiry into all of them?

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, they have to be sufficiently important. The noble Baroness and myself sat, I think, upon an inquiry when we did not know of a solution before we began the inquiry; by the time we produced the report we had found a solution. We can use inquiries if we have the right people to find solutions to problems. It is possibly, with great reluctance, the only way in which we can proceed. I should, however, like to indicate the two areas I have in mind.

Surely the first point is that everything depends—and I come back to the first question which I asked the Government—on whether we can really believe that there is a figure at which demand for labour in the registered ports will flatten out. If that figure is, for example, 10,000 or 8,000, the problem is manageable. The problem then become a once-for-all injection of public funds to enable the dockers in excess of that number to accept voluntary severance. We know that money—indeed, very considerable sums—has been spent in the past by the Ministry of Transport, but the greater part of the voluntary severance which goes on in the docks at present is paid for by a levy on employers. It is the cost of that levy which keeps up the cost of labour more than any other single factor in the registered ports. Therefore, my first point is that if the inquiry or the Government could arrive at some reasonable figure at which the demand for labour in the registered ports would flatten out for the next five years or so then, given the age profile—because 70 per cent. of dockers are over 40 and 35 per cent. are over 50—a once-for-all injection of funds should stabilise the industry.

My second point—and it is a much more general point—is as follows. Surely this is part of an overall problem. The areas of the most substantial old ports are in fact either the areas of high unemployment or the areas of urban deprivation. If we are to find a system of voluntary severence for the majority of existing registered dockers, what are we to give these people to do? What are we to employ these people on? Is it not time for the Government yet again to look at their complete refusal to believe that redundancy and efficiency—important as they are in manufacturing industry and in our old industries, such as the docks—must go hand in hand with planned, specific job creation?

6.42 p.m.

Viscount Long

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord St. Davids, for introducing this debate and for letting your Lordships and the Government know of his feelings about what should be done in the future regarding the dockland labour forces and the labour Acts which come into this debate. What I have detected from the speeches of both the noble Viscount, Lord St. Davids, and the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, has very little to do with improving the situation as it stands at present. In my view, both noble Lords have been boxing round the question because at present it is so sensitive and complicated. Therefore, I point out to the noble Viscount that he might find me indifferent on some of the facts that he wants; but I will try to help both him and the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, as regards the future. The noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, also referred to the different Acts, commissions, and so on, defending the labour force.

The Acts to which the Question refers are the Dock Workers (Regulation of Employment) Act 1946 and the Dock Work Regulation Act 1976. I apologise to your Lordships, but I feel that I must give some background details of what those Acts are about. Regulation of dock work has a long history in the United Kingdom. The first serious effort to regulate numbers of dockers was made in Liverpool in 1912. A principal feature of the scheme, which was on a voluntary basis, was the registration of workers to identify those entitled to seek work within the port. The registration system was extended during the 1914–18 war when joint committees were set up in the larger ports to advise Government on release of men for the forces and subsequently to limit the numbers of demobilised men seeking casual work. The Shaw Inquiry in 1919 regarded registration as "the beginning of a remedy" for conditions then prevailing in the industry. Nevertheless, progress towards establishing effective schemes between the wars was very patchy.

The second world war brought about a transformation, making comprehensive provision for schemes and real moves towards decasualisation. In 1940 the first statutory schemes were introduced under an order requiring compulsory registration. In 1941 decasualisation schemes were extended to all major ports, providing the basis for a guaranteed weekly wage and imposing specific obligations on dockers.

The Dock Workers (Regulation of Employment) Act 1946 enabled schemes to be made: for ensuring greater regularity of employment for dock workers and for securing that an adequate number of dock workers is available for the efficient performance of their work". In other words, the purpose was to ensure that there was an identified pool of experienced workers available to meet daily fluctuating demands for the loading and unloading of ships. Registers were established of dock workers who alone could be employed on dock work by registered employers in designated ports, the definition of dock work generally being that set out in war-time regulations, and the administration of the statutory scheme being in the hands of the National Dock Labour Board composed of equal numbers of employers and workers' representatives.

Until the mid-1960s most registered dockers were casual workers often allocated only on a daily basis to employers. In 1965 an inquiry under Lord Devlin saw this casual system of employment as the source of what is called "dissension and inefficiency" in the industry. It concluded that industrial relations, working practices and modernisation in the docks would improve if all registered dockworkers were offered employment on a permanent basis and the number of registered employers was greatly reduced. The 1967 scheme, which is still current, reflected this report. The scheme was primarily directed at reducing the extent of casual employment by ensuring that the great majority of registered dock workers were employed under contract with a registered employer. I think that the noble Viscount, Lord St. Davids, mentioned that in his speech.

In the early days of the scheme a number of developments gathered pace which have radically affected the industry. There is the spread of containers and "ro-ro" traffic—which is the new roll-on roll-off container shipping which was again mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord St. Davids—and the shifting pattern of trade towards south-east ports. The noble Viscount mentioned that there was a great change in the industry and that probably everyone had been caught out by the speed at which technology had taken over the docks—that is, the latest crane equipment, and so on. These developments reduced the number of dockers needed in all ports, but particularly on the west coast, and have given rise to disputes over the definition of dock work. The key issues in the early 1970s were: first, what should be done about the registered dockers for whom no permanent employer could be found and who were therefore on the Dock Labour Board's Temporarily Unattached Register; and, secondly, who should pack and unpack containers—the stuffing and stripping issue?

It was these two issues which gave rise to the 1972 national dock strike with the unions determined not to accept any threat of compulsory redundancy or return to the casual systems of employment. That strike was ended following the report of a committee jointly chaired by Mr. Jack Jones and my noble friend Lord Aldington. That report recommended, and the parties accepted, that except for disciplinary matters the Temporarily Unattached Register should be eliminated, and those on it at the time should be allocated to employers pending acceptance of voluntary severance by them or by other dockers whose place they could then take. This agreement was reaffirmed by the employers under the threat of another national strike in 1980.

That is not to say that it has barred all adjustment to change. In fact, voluntary severance arrangements in the industry have secured, without serious industrial action since 1972, a reduction in the registered dock labour force from 43,000 before the 1972 dispute to less than 14,000 now. My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, asked me the latest figure. I can only say that that is the latest figure. I had 15,000 down in my brief but a few moments ago I was able to ascertain that it is now just about 14,000.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I also asked him—and I hope he will tell me—about the figure of 14,000, which is the figure that the Dock Labour Board said originally was the figure below which it would not need to lose any more labour. Is that still the position?

Viscount Long

My Lords, no one can foretell the optimum level, but informed opinion in the industry suggests that we are approaching an equilibrium on the subject. I have no crystal ball to give your Lordships the definite answer to it, but that is as near as I can get.

The other and related issues which caused difficulties in the early 1970s were the definition of dock work and particularly the stuffing and stripping of containers, and the growth of ports such as Felixstowe and Dover which handled an insignificant amount of non-rail traffic when the original 1946 Act was passed, and are therefore excluded from the scheme. The Dock Work Regulation Act of 1976 aimed at taking arguments about definitions out of the area of industrial dispute and the legalistic framework of industrial tribunals applying outdated definitions by making the NDLB responsible for recommending to the Secretary of State what should be dock work. The Act provided for the scheme to be extended to "definable dock areas" within half a mile of any harbour or "harbour land" (a term with somewhat imprecise geographical limits). These provisions cannot, however, be implemented until Parliament has approved a draft new scheme, which it refused to do in 1978.

The noble Viscount, Lord St. Davids, made particular reference—or I believe he started to—to the case of Mr. Murrells. Mr. Murrells and others are engaged on trading with self-propelled barges on the River Thames out of wharves which are outside the confines of the Dock Labour Scheme. I am afraid that the matter is the subject of a case before an industrial tribunal, whose hearings I believe ended only at the end of last week. The tribunal has not yet determined the issue, and it would be quite wrong for me to comment on the substance of the case. All I would say to the noble Viscount at this stage is that this is not a case of bullying by the bureaucracy of the National Dock Labour Board, but of two parties, the board and the employers, using the machinery provided by statute to resolve an issue between them. Therefore, my Lords, it is a matter of some regret that the issue remains unresolved a year after it was first put to the tribunal.

A number of criticisms of the Dock Labour Scheme have been made, and in conclusion I will say that the Government accept that there are aspects of the manpower regime in the docks that are difficult to justify in modern circumstances. Many of the underlying problems reflected and underpinned by industrial agreements are not within the Government's power to solve. All of them will take time to solve, and to attempt to bulldoze through changes would not necessarily serve the best interests of port employers or port users. The Government have no plans to legislate at this moment. It is primarily for the industry itself, not the Government, to work towards solutions to the underlying problems and to chart the way forward.

House adjourned at five minutes before seven o'clock.