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Ports Efficiency Committee

Volume 498: debated on Tuesday 1 April 1952

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

2.24 a.m.

I am glad that we have been able to reach the Adjournment debate. It is a matter of importance and I want first to say to the Minister how grateful I am he has come to answer the debate himself. It shows that he, at any rate, regards this matter as of some importance.

On 11th March, in another place, there was a debate on cargo handling and consequent upon that debate, in which a number of noble Peers took part, it was stated by the Secretary of State for the Co-ordination of Transport, Fuel and Power that a Ports Efficiency Committee was to be appointed. Since then the Minister has announced the names of the members of this Committee and has given their terms of reference; but I will not go over them as the Minister knows all about them.

I want to say to the Minister of Transport that the appointment of this Committee has caused some concern among those who have an interest in the docks industry. Of all industries, surely, no industry more than the docks industry has had more reports. The pigeon-holes of the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Labour must be full of reports of this industry. For some time, there has been a spate of independent inquiries by outside bodies, and allegations have been to the effect that most of the trouble regarding the turn-round of ships has been due to the men.

The first thing I want to ask the Minister is this: What is the position about the Docks and Inland Waterways Executive? This was a body to which powers were delegated by the British Transport Commission, under the 1947 Act, to provide reports on the efficiency of the industry. They have already provided reports and prepared schemes on certain facilities, and they have already prepared reports on the ports of the Mersey and London and given them to the Minister of Transport.

In view of the fact that this authority has power from Parliament to prepare reports, why has it been necessary to appoint this outside body? In view of the fact that there have already been a number of reports on the dock industry, it is difficult to see why this new Committee has been appointed. It is one which, with respect, I and many of those I support think is made up of vested interests in shipping, plus representatives of the port authorities of London and Liverpool. It appears to us that the only purpose of appointing this Committee is so that it will produce reports which are satisfactory to those special interests and which are not necessarily in the best interests of the industry as a whole.

If the members of the Committee are to do the job which they have been appointed to do, they must look at what has been a glaring fact for a long time—some of the restrictive practices of the employers. All we have heard about outside the industry and in speeches in another place are the restrictive trade practices of the workers. Let me tell the Minister, and put it on record so that the Committee know—if they do me the honour of reading the HANSARD report of the debate, as I hope they will—about some of the things going on in the industry today.

It is a fact, as the Minister knows, that there is a grave shortage of craft, of lighters. We ought to ask ourselves what the employers are doing in the light of this grave shortage. It is a fact that lighterage firms are holding up shipping work for a whole day or more when they are unable to place a barge alongside a craft to deal with the cargo in the hold. In spite of this, the firms refuse to allow the cargo to be loaded into the barge of another company which is already at the ship, because that company would want the freightage. On the other hand, if there is a barge already in the vicinity, the firm owning it refuse to loan it to another company in the hope that, as a result of the refusal, they themselves will get the freight.

Thus we have the position in which there is a barge alongside the ship, but, if the cargo in the lower hold is being dealt with by a firm different from that owning the top cargo, then one firm refuses to loan its barges to the other because the question arises of who is to get the freight. That is only a small instance of what is going on all the time, and such instances can be seen by any one who cares to go to the river front in the morning.

There is also the problem of lighterage firms allowing their craft to be used as floating warehouses. Rather than offend the merchants who give them work, they allow their craft to remain loaded with grain for a long time. The great problem is that of the use of craft, and I can give the Minister an example of what I mean. A short time ago there were eight craft kept in the Surrey canal and, five minutes walk away from the barges, 200 men were unemployed. There were three ships—I can name them—which could not be discharged because of shortage of craft, and yet craft were being used as storage space.

If the men who were unemployed had been used to discharge the craft, they would have been discharged in a day and work on the ships started. That was not done, and this was a managerial responsibility. We had a recent incident in which a refrigerated ship with a cargo of grapes was held up over the week-end, and the employer would not allow any work to proceed on the ship, in order to force up the price of the grapes so as to get a better price in the market the following week.

These things have been reported before. They have been reported to other committees and are generally known. Indeed, if the Minister will look at the report in 1947 of the Committee on the Turn-round of Shipping he would see some caustic comments about the employers in the lighterage industry. As far as I know nothing has been done. The new Committee must really investigate incidents such as a ship arriving and a craft placed alongside it, but the work being held up because the employers have failed to put a lighterman in charge. This sort of thing goes on in the firms which are represented on this Committee. It has happened in the Furness Withy berth in Surrey Commercial Docks.

Sir Ernest Murrant, who is chairman of the line, is on the Committee. In other words, a member of the Committee is applying restrictive practices. The Minister shakes his head, but it is true. A member of the Committee set up to see how the turn round of ships can be speeded up is applying restrictive practices. Unless the Committee reports honestly about the restrictive practices of employers its report will cause a great deal of friction.

Since 1924 the trade unions have been asking for the constitution of the Port of London Authority to be altered. I will not go into the present constitution, but it is fair to say that the labour side has no representation as such. We have been asking since that year for this body to be reconstituted to allow four groups—producers, consumers, merchants, and technicians—to have representation on it. We have asked for nine from each group, with the exception of four from the technicians, to make a total of 31. At the moment the P.L.A., which was established to unify the port, has not done its work because we have the competitors of the authority on its board. What a fantastic position. It must be altered.

It is no use making criticisms without offering constructive alternative proposals for the industry as a whole. We know that there are great difficulties, but let us be fair to the men. With regard to mechanisation, a great deal has been done by the men themselves. Most of the heavy cargoes have been mechanised More could be done, but the facilities are just not there. Berthing and warehousing facilities are still not available. What we have to do is to cut out some of the cut-throat competition which exists between many of the employers. There is a scramble for labour with firms absorbing casual labour in excess of their requirements, so that it should not be available for other firms who may have work for the men and hope thereby to get the work themselves. That sort of thing is going on and this Committee will find it so if it probes properly.

On behalf of the dock workers I can say that they are sick to death of the constant allegations that they are not pulling their weight. The Minister must realise that over 90 per cent. of them are on piece-work, and no one on piecework is not going to give of his best. Reference was made in another place to men going outside the docks for cups of tea. That may be so in a small number of cases, but we must not indict the whole industry because of the action of a few.

We must get a different spirit in this industry if we are to have better turn-round of shipping. There are grave practices by the employers themselves. In 1945, the port employers issued a booklet, which is well known to all who are interested in dockland, in which they declared quite clearly that they thought that in the future the men should revert back to the sort of conditions in which my father worked many years ago. The employers thought that in 1945.

The employers in this industry are out of date by comparison with those in other industries. They regard labour as means to their personal profits. They do not consider the interests of the country as a whole. If this Committee is to do a good job of work it must look to the malpractices of the employers.

There is just one other point I must touch on, relating to mechanisation. The other day, in another place, Lord Waverley made reference to a grain elevator named after himself, the Sir John Anderson. It cost £150,000. He said that the men were refusing to work it. The men do not appear to have been consulted about that job. The trade unions, the head office of the trade unions, the National Joint Council of Labour, the supreme body, were not consulted about this beforehand.

The employers do not understand that they should consult the men beforehand—before installing new machinery of this sort. But in an industry of this kind, in which the men cannot forget yesterday, they fear being made redundant by this new machinery, and they fear hurt to themselves and their families. They should not be condemned wholesale for that, and they should be consulted. There are good and bad ones. We want to get the best out of them.

It has been pointed out recently that at Liverpool, which is a port to come under the jurisdiction of this Committee, an 8,000 ton ship could be discharged during the war in from two to two and a half days. That is perfectly true, but in Liverpool, under a regional port director, the men were then working all night and all day. They are not working those hours today. They are working only one shift. Why? Dock workers do not mind working overtime, if they are paid overtime rates of pay. All things like this can be dealt with simply if they are approached in the right spirit.

If the Minister will give consideration to some of these problems, that will be useful. The Committee should, too. It should look into the malpractices of the employers. If it does not, or if it merely finds fault with the dock workers, it will only create a good deal of friction. Everyone knows that in dockland today we have depleted berthing facilities, depleted shipping space, depleted warehousing capacity, depleted barge carrying capacity, and, at the same time, ships with full cargoes, instead of with part cargoes as in former days.

Let us see some action by the Ministry of Transport. When those things are done I am certain that if the dockworker has decent employers to work for, which he has not had in the past and has not got today, I believe that he will not only give of his best but will do more than he is doing today because he will have the tools to do it with.

2.40 a.m.

I shall be brief, as I want the Minister to give a reply, but I want to support my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish). He has said, as it has been alleged so often, that the dockers have been criticised for lack of energy, lack of initiative, lack of work, and so on. It has been said that in other countries the loading and unloading of ships is carried out much more quickly. But in other countries they work night and day and here we do not. I emphasise what my hon. Friend has said, that the Minister and his Department should do something about the shortage of craft, about berthing facilities, about shedding, and also about a few more amenities for the dockers. Then they could give far more co-operation than at the moment.

I am amazed and distressed that on the Ports Efficiency Committee there is no representative of the dockers. The field is wide enough to choose from—there are 100,000 dockers. So why is there not one docker included on it?

2.41 a.m.

I am certain that hon. Members of the Ports Efficiency Committee will read this debate with great interest, even though it comes on at an hour when our spirit is willing but the flesh may be getting a little weak. When the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) started to speak he questioned the wisdom of the appointment of the Ports Efficiency Committee, and then proceeded to make an extraordinarily good case for having it.

If I may take him up on what he said at the beginning of his speech, he referred to the various reports that have been made in the past and said that they had been pigeon-holed in my Department. Two of them, to my knowledge, are now sitting in one of the desks in my room, and they are certainly not pigeon-holed. These reports have been worked on and have contributed substantially already to the results we want.

But there is a difference between these reports and the job of this Committee. It is worth reading out again the Committee's terms of reference:
"To investigate the working of the ports of the United Kingdom, and in particular the ports of London and Liverpool, and to secure the co-operation of all the interests concerned including shipping and inland transport authorities in ensuring a quicker flow through the ports of inward and outward cargo; and to report from time to time."
One of the things which the hon. Gentleman wants is to secure the co-operation of all the interests concerned. These words mean that there have been reports and that action has been taken on them. But no one in the country who knows anything about it, least of all the hon. Gentleman himself, is satisfied that the results are flowing in the ports. Clearly, there was need for as high-powered and effective a body as could be got together to go into what has been happening in the past, to see what has been happening as a result of the reports, to put them together and work for greater co-operation between all those concerned to see that the turn-round in shipping at the ports is improved.

With regard to the Docks and Inland Waterways Executive, and its power to make schemes, I think that the hon. Gentleman is under a misapprehension of the powers of that Executive under the Act. It has constitutional statutory powers to submit to me schemes for reorganisation of harbours, but it does not cut across the work of the Ports Efficiency Committee.

I am going fairly fast through the main points, because I have not much time, so I hope the hon. Gentleman will interrupt me if I have not covered them all. I thought the hon. Gentleman said something a little unworthy about vested interests. When he reads it tomorrow I think he will wonder whether he meant what he said. He said he was frightened that the men on the Committee—very honourable men—might produce a report which favoured their own vested interests. Really, I do not think that is a very proper observation.

They should not be exposed to temptation. The Minister could have chosen many other good men.

If we are to have a committee to do a job like this, we want men who know the job—

I will deal with that later. There are still seven minutes to go. Would it be conceivable to have a Committee of this kind without a ship-owner on it? I do not think that it would.

I have the hon. Gentleman's agreement on that. It might be argued that if there is to be a shipowner on the Committee at all there will be a vested interest of some kind.

This Committee comes into being at a time when we have had a spate of reports from outside bodies—a chamber of commerce, Aims of Industry, and the debate in the House of Lords. Then when the names come to be announced, it cannot help but be commented on that the people concerned have a vested interest in the industry. One can hardly expect them, if there is anything wrong with the industry, to find the fault in their own part of it.

The whole nation has a vested interest in this issue. The hon. Member will find that this Committee will do its job with absolute honesty, with the one purpose of getting the ships turned round and achieving greater output in the docks. It is inconceivable, after glancing at the names of members of the Committee that anything else could happen. They are all men of the highest integrity, and I know that the hon. Member would not wish to seem to cast any reflection upon them.

Then there is the question of a docker on the Committee. Mr. Tom Yates, the General Secretary of the National Union of Seamen, is on the Committee. There were certain consultations, and I think that we should not go into that aspect of it any further. Mr. Yates was completely acceptable to everyone concerned, and greatly acceptable to myself, for I knew him when he was working in Glasgow. When it comes down to the work of the Committee applied to particular ports, there will be full opportunity for dockers to express their views.

Already the Committee is moving and has made certain recommendations to London. I have no reason to doubt that they will be accepted. If they are, there will be a reconstituted port operations consultative panel on which there will be dockers' representation. The dockers have nothing to fear; they will get their say where it is going to be most useful to them and to everyone else.

When this Committee reports, will the reports be made available to all of us who are interested?

That is a question of which I should like notice. They will make progress reports from time to time.

The hon. Member touched on the question of the constitution of the Port of London Authority. I do not think he expected me to go into that large question this evening.

At least, the Committee will read tonight's debate carefully. It is quite a handful and the question might be looked at.

Then there is the information the hon. Member gave about the grain elevator. That is news to me. It will be studied, and we shall see where we get with it.

My final word about the ports is that there is a vast complexity of factors that will get a ship turned round fast or slow. That is the whole difficulty of the port problem. Often when it is thought that something that really matters has arisen it slides away. On the question of restrictive practices, I would say that just as the hon. Member made the point that there are good and bad dockers, so I would say that there are, obviously, good firms and bad.

One of the jobs of the Committee will be to see what they can do to weld port operation into a more effective whole. The ports had to put up with a lot of damage during the war and it is a pity that it was not found possible to use available resources since 1945 to do more restoration work and get them back to a state of maximum efficiency. That is a thing which only Governments can struggle along with, with the resources that are available and I hope very much that the time will come when we can get the British ports right up to the standard of equipment, buildings and structures that they ought to have. That goes, too, for amenities for the dockers. It is a very real problem at a time like this, in trying to get on with what is everywhere recognised to be very desirable work, to get better conditions for the dockers in the ports.

I finish by repeating that everything that has been touched upon in the debate tonight is, obviously, the kind of thing that the Ports Efficiency Committee will be studying. I assure the hon. Member with complete confidence that they will produce absolutely unbiased and genuine reports and results—I am sure that there will be results—to the great benefit of dockers, shipowners, and everybody who wants to see our ports working properly.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Ten Minutes to Three o'Clock a.m.