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London Meat Distribution (Strike)

Volume 477: debated on Tuesday 4 July 1950

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(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Labour whether he has any further statement to make about the strike of London meat drivers.

Yes, Sir. I regret that this strike continues. The Government are proceeding with their arrangements to safeguard, as fully as possible, the London meat supply. Service personnel yesterday began to handle carcass meat at certain of the cold storage depots, including Smithfield. Some fresh meat was also handled at Islington. As a consequence, certain other workers at those depots refused to continue at work, bringing the total number of workers affected by the stoppage to over 3,000.

In view of the conflicting statements that are appearing regarding the cause of the strike by the meat drivers, a short account of the events leading up to it may be useful. The claim was first presented by the union in January, 1949, and on two occasions, March, 1949, and September, 1949, because of the general economic position, the employers stated that they had no alternative but to reject the claim, although they were prepared to accept arbitration. The Negotiating Committee representing the men agreed, however. that the claim should not be pressed.

The claim was renewed on 6th June, which is the first effective date for the purpose of the present negotiations. A meeting of the Joint Industrial Council followed on 16th June. On 22nd June the employers accepted in principle the basis of the claim and made an offer which the Union desired to consider. A further meeting of the Joint Industrial Council was accordingly fixed for 29th June but unfortunately the strike started on 23rd June and the further meeting of the J.I.C. has thus been prevented.

On these facts there can be little doubt that the strike has occurred at a stage when it is most damaging to the men's interests. Whatever view they may have taken as to the value of the employers' offer, it opened the way for full discussions and negotiation. The Union executive have condemned the strike, which is a breach of agreement, and the men should resume normal working without delay. The London public are being seriously inconvenienced, and the Government are determined to protect essential food supplies.

We are grateful to the Minister for making that full statement. May I suggest that it might have been made a little earlier? I hope the Minister will give full publicity to it. I should like also to ask him a question which I put yesterday to the Parliamentary Secretary, who referred me to the Minister. In view of the fact that this unofficial strike is obviously designed to cause the greatest dislocation and difficulty to the housewife and the general public, is there any reason to believe that the same people are behind this strike as were behind the recent troubles at the London Docks?

It is difficult to give a very definite answer to that question. I heard the right hon. Gentleman ask that supplementary question yesterday and I pursued some inquiries into the matter. It is quite clear that this strike has been deliberately planned to take place at a given moment. but we have no information that its planning has, in fact, been carried out by anybody but the men themselves. It is interesting to note that the Port Workers' Defence Committee, the unofficial organisation who engineered the strikes in the docks, which is Communist-dominated, has in fact profited by the situation and has issued advice to the dock workers to refuse to work if the soldiers come on the scene. To that extent it is involved, but it is one thing to know something and another thing to prove it.

In view of the fact that the Minister has set up an inquiry into the situation in the docks dealing with these particular subjects, would he consider enlarging the scope of the inquiry so that it could take in this dispute?

No. Sir, for the reason that it is not necessary to enlarge the scope because they are asked to take this consideration with all other matters.

In fairness to the dock workers, would it not be right to point out that all these men are working at the moment? The Minister will understand that not one of them could be expected to work alongside troops—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] Certainly: it is a fundamental principle. They do not wish to be involved in the dispute and do not intend to take any notice of any advice given by an outside body, but the advent of troops makes the position altogether different.

It is always difficult in these delicate affairs if we have too much question and answer, if I may be forgiven for saying so, because sometimes an accidental word gives us more trouble. Up to the moment attempts have been made to involve the dock workers, but so far they have resisted and I hope their loyalty and their experience recently will make them continue to resist.

That supplementary question gives me an opportunity to correct a little misunderstanding on the part of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, who answered the Question yesterday at short notice. The Meat Transport Organisation act as the agent of the Ministry of Food and the employers are those whose vehicles are on charter to it. Altogether, 75 per cent. of the workers are employed by private firms and 25 per cent. by the Road Haulage Executive.

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether the work of the troops, for which the overwhelming majority of their fellow citizens are most grateful, will enable the meat ration to be honoured in full this week in the London area?

Subject to such little difficulty as might arise in handling, it is the confident hope and expectation of the Government that it will be so. I can only say that every effort is being made to that end. I believe that our womenfolk and children had very considerable inconvenience last week by having to take the corned beef ration, and they may rest assured that everybody will do all that can he done to give them some real meat this week.