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London Docks (Dispute)

Volume 887: debated on Thursday 6 March 1975

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(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the dispute in the London Docks.

On 28th February some 9,000 London dockers stopped work. The stoppage is unofficial and followed unofficial action both by dock workers and road haulage workers.

The dispute originated with the picketing of the Dagenham Storage Company at Barking and F. J. Robertson at Millwall with the objective of securing employment there for registered dockers. Additionally, dockers began to refuse to handle vehicles which it was alleged served these and other establishments where it was claimed cargo handling work should be undertaken by dock workers. This action led to counter-picketing by road haulage workers, who endeavoured to prevent goods from reaching the docks.

At the request of the Transport and General Workers' Union and with the agreement of all the other parties, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service established an independent inquiry on 24th February into the issues at Barking and Millwall, and this inquiry is now proceeding.

The workers concerned are in the main members of the Transport and General Workers' Union, and the union has consistently urged that all industrial action in this dispute should cease. On 27th February the haulage workers accepted the advice of the union and removed their pickets. Dockers at Tilbury, however, continued to refuse to handle some vehicles, and this led to the stoppage. The union's national executive has this week urged a return to normal working, and its general secretary met all the London dock port stewards last night in an endeavour to persuade them to accept the executive's decision.

The issues involved are of long standing. They were largely responsible for the national dock strike in 1972 and have been a potent source of industrial unrest for many years. During this period there has been a substantial reduction in the employment opportunities available for registered dock workers, while at the same time changes in the ways goods moving to and from ships are handled has led to work traditional to the docks and to dock workers moving from them. Under existing legislation it has not been possible to extend the coverage of the Dock Labour Scheme to all such activities where this might be judged appropriate.

On 15th July 1974 I told the House that I proposed to begin consultations on the extension of the scheme to non-scheme ports and on possible changes in the statutory definitions which define the scope of the scheme. These consultations led me to conclude that significant changes are necessary to reflect the changes which have taken place in the industry and to ensure that satisfactory arrangements are established to deal with possible future changes. In the Queen's Speech the Government undertook to publish proposals for ensuring further safeguards for employment in the docks. I hope to publish proposals for legislation very shortly.

As the Government are shortly to begin consultations on these proposals and an independent inquiry is currently considering the particular problems at Barking and Millwall, I hope that the dockers will respond to the advice of the Transport and General Workers' Union so that normal working can be resumed and progress quickly made in establishing new arrangements to deal with the vexed problems. Any stoppage in the docks can only increase our economic difficulties and, indeed, threaten the number of jobs they provide.

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether those directly involved in and affected by the dispute have submitted evidence to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service inquiry? Can he say when this inquiry will be completed, and whether it is his intention to extend the Dock Labour Scheme by legislation to be brought in during this parliamentary Session? Will the right hon. Gentleman and the T and GWU executive consider reminding those on strike that if the dispute drags on, other people's jobs will be at risk and the country's economy will be seriously affected?

I cannot say when the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service will complete its inquiry, but those concerned appreciate the need for speed, as do the different parties who are giving evidence—and evidence is being given to the inquiry. We hope that it will be able to report as soon as possible.

It is the Government's intention to introduce in this Session the legislation required to extend the scheme. How long this Session will be is another matter, but certainly we wish to proceed with the legislation as speedily as possible. I hope that very soon we shall publish the consultative document about the legislation so that people can see clearly what we propose and the parties concerned can make any representations they want.

I have already indicated my view, and the Government's strongly held view, about the whole dispute. We believe that it should be brought to an end at once. We believe that people should resume work at once. We believe that this is urgent in the interests of the dock workers themselves.

My right hon. Friend referred to another inquiry into this industry. Does he realise that it has been subject to a number of inquiries, under both Governments, which have come out with recommendations which the dockers have accepted but which have not been implemented, though the Labour Government have now said they will implement them? Is it not time to step in and take action in view of the fact that yet again the docks industry is being threatened by private employers? First it was the stevedores, and now it is the lorry driving companies which are disrupting this important industry.

I appreciate what my hon. Friend has said. I was informed by some of the docks representatives whom I met yesterday at the meeting of the T and GWU executive that they had already had 17 investigations into the docks, and therefore another one would be the eighteenth. We are not proposing another investigation. We are proposing a consultative document to be put before the House as a preparation for legislation and for action on the basis of that legislation. We are not proposing another inquiry. We are proposing action to deal with the matter.

As with some other things, these are delicate matters. This is a dispute involving two branches of the same union, and it is a delicate matter for the union and also for the country. However, will the right hon. Gentleman accept that the Opposition do not believe that the remedies proposed by him this afternoon or by the Government are any long-term answer to the problems facing the docks and will merely add to costs and restrict our trade even more than at present? In a situation where jobs are at risk in this way one does not, in the long term, preserve them by this sort of action. Will the right hon. Gentleman remember that when he comes to discuss further the Dock Labour Scheme? In the meantime, we join him in urging a return to work, otherwise more jobs will be lost.

We are glad to see the right hon. Gentleman recovered so speedily from his unofficial absence—although many might wish that he would extend it. I cannot accept what he says about our proposals. I do not think that he should condemn them before he has seen them. I have the advantage that I know what they are. I hope that when he sees them he will bring his usual, or shall I say his unusual, objective view to bear upon the matter. Then we shall be able to discuss the matter in the House, which is the proper place to settle legislation on this issue.

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that dock workers are still a vital section of the industrial labour force and that they are getting fed up with all the reports and consultative documents and so on? Does he accept that what they require is action now?

The most effective action which we believe can be taken to deal with this question must be through legislation. It cannot be done by edict. It has to be done by legislation approved by this House. The dock workers would be wise, in their own interests, to call off this action immediately, to examine the proposals we are making carefully, and to make any representations that they wish, together with other parties, about those proposals. That is the proper way to proceed in the interests of the dock workers and of the country.

As the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service is constructively engaged in this dispute, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to be encouraged by that into giving further consideration to the possibility of the service being usefully engaged in the signalmen's dispute, which is bringing continuing inconvenience to many commuters?

I have already given the reasons why the Government do not believe it is wise to intervene or for the parties in this signalmen's dispute to go to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. What has happened has confirmed the wisdom of what I then said. If all hon. Members in all sections of the House would back the Government in this, the prospect of bringing the signalmen's dispute to an early end would be much enhanced.

Would my right hon. Friend agree that the present dispute in the docks is the culmination of the concern and fears of many dock workers? Is he aware that in London the number of dock workers has been reduced from 22,000 to 9,000 and on Merseyside from 16,000 to 8,000 with no indication that the numbers will ever be made good? Does he further appreciate that this causes real concern? Is he aware that the sooner we have the consultative documents and legislation the sooner will there be confidence about employment prospects among dock workers?

My hon. Friend has certainly shown what are the anxieties and fears of many dock workers. We are seeking to learn from these and to produce proposals which will assist in allaying these anxieties. If this action continues it can only add to the difficulties, The dockers have an interest in this but there are other parties concerned, too. That has to be taken into account in the legislation we produce.