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Strike, London Docks

Volume 466: debated on Monday 4 July 1949

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(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Labour whether he can make a statement on the position of the strike in the London Docks.

The number of men on strike this morning totals 8,336. Eighty-eight ships are idle, and eight are under-manned. Of the idle ships, 30 are food ships. The question of safeguarding these food supplies is being closely watched. This strike is hurting the country and the men cannot escape their responsibility for causing this hurt by saying there is a lock-out. As I pointed out on Friday last, the men are in breach of their agreements and of the provisions of the Dock Labour Scheme and it is nothing but Communist manoeuvre to pretend that there is any other explanation of the position. If the men wish to show their loyalty to their own trade union and to trade unionism and to fulfil their obligations to the country, they should resume full normal working at once in accordance with the advice of their accredited trade union leaders. There is no other alternative. The men must realise that by their present conduct they may be imperilling the future of the Dock Labour Scheme and are certainly damaging the economic position of the country.

Is the Minister aware that we on this side of the House support his view that this strike is hurting the country, and that every attempt must be made to back trade union leaders and orthodox methods of collective bargaining? Is it the intention of the Government to inquire into or act upon the information furnished by certain hon. Members of this House in regard to Communist activities behind this strike? May I further ask whether the Minister can reassure us that, as a result of the efforts which the Government will make to clear the ships in question, very little or no food is likely to be wasted?

As to the investigations into the action behind the strike, this matter is—and has been over some little time now—having the attention of the Government, and inquiries are proceeding. With reference to the food supplies, we are keeping that matter under daily consideration, and I can assure the House that every step will be taken to ensure that no food is lost to the community.

Is not the Minister aware that, though what he has said is perfectly agreed by everyone, it does lack a sense of urgency, which has not yet penetrated to the men, who do not seem to realise that this is stabbing this country in the back at a most serious moment? Can he not raise the temperature of his pressure and make them understand the folly of their misguided act and of being misled by the Communists?

The hon. Member has not had any dealings in handling dockers or other workers of this kind. Pressure has been continual, and I must say, with all credit to them, that trade union officials of high and low rank have done their best in that area to show the men where they are wrong. It may be that a jolly good shower of rain might do more to settle this strike than anything else.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, and every hon. Member in this House knows, the men are prepared to work every one of the ships in the docks, except the two Canadian ships that are "black." No one is stopping them working those ships except the Dock Labour Board and the Minister. Why will he persist in trying to provoke the situation and calling this a strike, when everyone can see that it is a plain old-fashioned bosses' lockout? Will not he appreciate, as the special agent for Rotherhithe knows perfectly well that the men would be quite happy to work the ships if only the Minister will show—

The hon. Member must obey the rules which govern Questions. Questions should not be put to convey a particular point of view, and that is what the hon. Member was doing.

On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. I did understand that in matters of this nature one is entitled to go a little beyond the normal, rather rigid Rules for putting a Question. If I was wrong—

On a point of Order. Is it in Order for an hon. Member to call another hon. Member a "special agent," when the hon. Member to whom he refers is only trying to do his duty to the country and the dockers he represents?

May I say that the phrase I was using is the phrase by which the hon. Member is described in Rotherhithe? I did not mean to use the phrase "special agent."

Will the Minister state, as a result of his investigations, what are the conditions or terms of re-engagement offered to the Canadian crews, and whether he has any evidence that their contention that those terms have been broken is either true or false?

All I can say about that, without entering into the merits or demerits, is that I am assured that the undertaking given by the captain of the "Beaverbrae" to his own crew has been maintained 100 per cent. There is no deviation from it, and any story to the contrary by other "special agents" who are in this country is wholly untrue.

In view of the assurance of the right hon. Gentleman that investigations or inquiries are going on into the information given by hon. Members of this House, can he give us an assurance that he will publish the results of any such inquiries, or in some way inform the House at the earliest possible date?

On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. As one of the Members of Parliament involved, may I say that this matter has been referred to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who is dealing with this matter, and not to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour.

In view of the mortal danger to this country, may I ask the Minister what is the good of the Prime Minister making mild speeches in Manchester, and what is the good of the Minister of Labour making these mild speeches in the House? It is deeds and not words that we want to save the country.

I agree with the hon. Member that it is deeds that we want and not words. We want the men to get back to work. With reference to the question from the right hon. Gentleman about publication, whatever evidence we can get which we can disseminate among our people to show how they are being treated in this matter will be published.

Will not the Minister admit that the issue is a simple one, namely, that the dock workers are locked out because they have refused to work merely one boat calling on some three dozen workers; and that they have been prepared to work on any other boat? Will he also acknowledge that in the case of certain food boats they have worked them and the money they have earned has gone to the Manor House Hospital? Will he also say whether he or any other Minister encourages Labour Members of Parliament to be stool-pigeons?

What was that last word? I did not quite catch the last word used by the hon. Member.

I think that is a most unworthy accusation. I direct the hon. Member to withdraw that unworthy imputation at once.

On your guidance, Sir, I am prepared to withdraw wholeheartedly; but I must say—[HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw."] I have withdrawn on your guidance, Mr. Speaker, but further to that, on a point of Order, I distinctly asked the Minister, in general hypothetical terms, whether he encouraged such action. I made no reference to any hon. Member. I accept your Ruling and therefore I have withdrawn, but I made no reference to any hon. Member. I merely asked whether, hypothetically, the Minister encourages such an action?

There is one point which emerges from that statement which I think I should deal with, and that is the repeated allegations that this is a lockout. This is not a lockout. The men have entered into a contract under the Dock Labour Scheme to be available for work when required, and when they say, "We will not go to work unless you do something," those men are striking, and are not locked out.