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Strike, London Docks

Volume 466: debated on Thursday 7 July 1949

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(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Labour if he will make a statement on the present situation in the Port of London and what steps the Government are now taking to bring the dispute to an end.

There has been no improvement at the docks this morning. Ninety-six ships are idle and seven are undermanned. Certain food supplies are now being unloaded by Service personnel, but I regret to say that I have just learned that some 2,000 meat porters and drivers have stopped work at Smithfield. The National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers Union has arranged to take a secret ballot to-morrow morning among its members for or against a resumption of normal working. In view of this ballot I would ask to be excused from making any further statement, but I am sure it will be the hope of everyone who has the interests of the country at heart that this ballot will mark the end of this unfortunate business.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether it will be possible for him to give some statement before the weekend because, as the House will agree, the situation is a very disturbing one, especially in view of some of the reports from the other side of the Atlantic, which also are disturbing. Can we be assured that we shall have a statement before the weekend? We all hope the result of the ballot will be what the right hon. Gentleman hopes it will be. Can we also be assured that the Government are considering the other steps they may have to take if these hopes are not fulfilled?

Yes, Sir, certainly. Tomorrow I shall give the House whatever information is available. I very sincerely hope that it will be more cheerful information. With reference to the position overseas, steps have been taken, through the kind offices of the Canadian Government, to see that the action which was contemplated is not carried out and, in fact, it has been pushed into the background for the time being. With reference to action to be taken by the Government, that matter is under consideration, but I am sure hon. Members will see the difficulty at the moment. I am most anxious not to say anything that could be said to bring duress upon the ballot or, having said it, to give an excuse as to why the ballot went the wrong way. May I finish by saying that I hope our friends in the docks will realise more than ever after yesterday's statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer how vital is their contribution to the welfare of the country?

On a point of Order. In view of the statement made by the Chancellor yesterday and the very serious situation at the London Docks, I want to ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether you would accept from me a Motion for the adjournment of the House in order that we can discuss this deliberate lock-out of the London dockers?

That would not come under the Rules. This strike has been going on for some days and to come under the Rules it must be something suddenly breaking out.

The Minister has informed us that troops are being used to unload the ships but that the transport men—the meat carriers, I think he said—have now refused to work. The situation becomes more serious every day; it becomes appallingly serious and it is a deliberate lock-out. If the men are allowed to work they will go to work. Could we not have an opportunity to discuss this situation in the House?

No; I shall not accept the Motion under the Rules. I do not think, myself, that the House would allow it, either.

Further to that point of Order. I am sure that the Tilbury dockers, whom I have the honour to represent, will think very differently from hon. Members opposite as to the seriousness of the position in the docks when they hear me making this point of Order. The point of Order is this: in view of the new turn of events, namely, the introduction of troops into the Port of London and its effect today in the increase of the strike, can it not be said by you, Mr. Speaker, to be a definite matter of urgent public importance, different from what it was yesterday, different from what it was a week ago and, indeed, a turning point which brings it within the rules of Debates on the Adjournment?

There is no point of Order in the hon. Member's statement. The introduction of troops is not a definite matter of urgent public importance; they were introduced in former dock strikes and, in fact, they have often been introduced.

Further to that point of Order. Surely the hon. Member for Mile End (Mr. Piratin) yesterday appealed to the Government to send troops into the docks?

As my name has been brought in, may I say here, that I said nothing of the kind?

Could I ask my right hon. Friend whether the two disputed ships have yet been discharged of their cargo and, if not, whether he has any idea when those now discharging the ships, will reach these two disputed ships?

That is very problematical. I have no authority for regulating the form of work within the docks. All I can say is this: that until the men carry out the obligations into which they have entered, we cannot have any confidence in their carrying out any further instructions given to them.

Will my right hon. Friend try to answer my question this afternoon without losing his temper or becoming abusive? As it is quite clear that the men in the docks and in my constituency, in Smithfield, seem not to understand his point of view about this strike—and many hon. Members on this side of the House do not understand it either—will he not at once give consideration to the Motion standing in the name of four of my hon. Friends and myself which condemns the National Dock Labour Board, places the responsibility squarely on them and requires that we should put pressure on them to end the lock-out? I suggest that this is the only constructive way of approaching this strike and that every step my right hon. Friend takes now tends to exacerbate the feelings and intensify the struggle?

I hope the House will notice that in spite of what is in the Motion, the hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. Platts-Mills) twice referred to this as a strike and not a lock-out. Secondly, he asked me if I could give him an answer without being abusive. In view of his conduct to me I am afraid that that is impossible.

I really think we are doing no good by these questions and answers, and it would be much better to get on with the Business.

Later, in Committee of Supply, on a Motion to report Progress

I am grateful to the Committee for this opportunity. I regret to inform the House that the statement I made this afternoon that 2,000 porters at Smithfield had ceased work was incorrect. I regret having made the statement, but I am glad that I was wrong in that statement. I had this information in good faith and at short notice was unable to check it sufficiently. I apologise to the House for misleading it and to the men concerned.