HL Deb 14 November 1990 vol 523 cc329-31

2.49 p.m.

Lord Hatch of Lusby asked Her Majesty's Government:

What was their original estimate of the cost of abolishing the National Dock Labour Scheme and what is their latest estimate.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum to the Bill which became the Dock Work Act 1989 estimated that the dock workers' compensation scheme might cost £25 million over three years. It also made it clear that no precise forecast could be given. To date, the actual cost to the Government has been £115 million. The final cost will depend on decisions still to be taken by individual harbour authorities. We expect it to be of the order of £135 million.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, do not the figures given by the noble Viscount demonstrate that when the House debated this Bill it was misled by the Government as to the cost? If the Government had brought forth those figures at that time the debate would have been very different. Further, is it not the case that since the abolition of the National Dock Labour Scheme over 5,000 dockers—more than half the labour force—have been declared redundant?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, the Government made clear when the Bill was going through the House that the number of redundancies was uncertain. The estimate was based on the available evidence and on previous experience. However, the abolition of the scheme and attendant circumstances, including the timing of the dock workers' strike in relation to the enactment of the legislation abolishing the scheme, created an unprecedented situation so that we were unable to forecast the redundancies at the time.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that, whatever the cost to public funds of the initial action, the improvement in service rendered by the ports will more than compensate for it?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. It is now clear that the extent of overmanning exceeded all estimates. Restrictive practices have been swept away and new business has been attracted to a number of former scheme ports. There is more flexible use of labour and industrial relations have been improved. The new climate of competition in industry has meant lower rates for cargo and has helped the whole economy.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a number of companies in this industry took the opportunity afforded by the termination of the scheme to dismiss a large number of people who had been trade union activists? Is he further aware that this has led to the longest running industrial tribunal hearing in the history of industrial tribunals? Is that not a totally unforeseen additional expense?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords I suggest that the reason for the dismissals was the dock strike which took place just after the Act was implemented.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, will the noble Viscount accept that for once I find myself in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter? In my view, abolition of the Dock Labour Scheme has been amply justified by the improvement in productivity and in our industrial performance that has followed.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his support.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, is it not the case that under the Act abolishing the Dock Labour Scheme the time for claiming compensation payments by redundant dock workers is still open? We now have the proposed privatisation of the trust ports, a number of which were scheme ports. Have the Government taken into consideration that one of the claims by those who support the privatisation of the trust ports is that there can be free development; in other words, asset stripping'? Therefore, have the Government also taken into consideration that there might be wholesale redundancies among dock workers at those trust ports?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am unable to reply to the noble Lord on that point and I shall write to him.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, in view of the two supplementary questions from the Opposition Front Bench, does my noble friend gather that in the event or the Labour Party ever forming a government it will want to reintroduce a national Dock Labour Scheme, as it previously existed?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I do not think that is a question that I can answer; it is best put to the Opposition Front Bench. However, I suggest that the much higher cost of abolishing the Dock Labour Scheme reflects the very high level of overmanning which the scheme had perpetuated for a very long time.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, can the noble Viscount explain to the House what he understood was the reason for introducing the Dock Labour Scheme—

Noble Lords


Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, is it not now clear that the costs involved in abolishing the Dock Labour Scheme have been far and away completely buried by the extra value which has been generated from the use of the large quantities of land which were entirely frozen and devastated by the scheme? That has made any costs entirely irrelevant.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, there is much in what the noble Viscount says.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, I return to the first question that I put to the noble Viscount. Is it not the case, as the figures he has given to the House show, that the actual cost of the abolition of the scheme is five times the figure given to Parliament by the Government when the Bill was debated? Is that not in line with the Government's cavalier attitude towards statistics? Does not the noble Viscount now agree that Parliament was misled when the Bill abolishing the scheme was debated in this House and in another place?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I know that the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, does not always listen to replies given from the Dispatch Box. I have already said that the significance of the timing of the dockers' strike is that it took place after the enactment of legislation abolishing the Dock Labour Scheme. We believe that some employers took the opportunity of releasing as many former registered dock workers as possible and many workers preferred to volunteer for redundancy rather than join in the strike. As a result there was a much greater reduction in the labour force than employers had previously believed possible.