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Dock Workers'employment Scheme

Volume 888: debated on Friday 21 March 1975

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With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on dock work.

I have today published a consultative document setting out proposals for legislation to enable the necessary extension of the Dock Workers' Employment Scheme to take place. The proposed legislation would replace the Dock Workers (Regulation of Employment) Act 1946 and relevant parts of the Docks and Harbours Act 1966.

In July I announced that the Government would carry out the pledge to extend the scheme to all significant commercial ports and would begin consultations in the preparation of the necessary draft order under the procedures laid down in the 1946 Act. At the same time, consultations began on possible changes to the statutory definitions which determine the scope and application of the scheme.

These consultations have led me to conclude that a more radical approach is needed. The present application of statutory regulation has remained virtually unchanged since the introduction of the original scheme. Moreover, the limitations of the present legislation prevent the extension of the scheme in many circumstances where this would be appropriate. This has proved—and would otherwise remain—a potent source of industrial unrest.

I have, therefore, decided that, as well as extending statutory control to significant non-scheme ports, it is necessary to ensure that there can be a continuous review of the need for changes in application of the scheme and speedy means of bringing about necessary changes.

A new definition of "dock work" which automatically carried with it an extension of statutory regulation would simply impose new rigidities where flexibility is required. What is needed is the broad identification of the type of operations to which, in appropriate circumstances, extension might be judged desirable and procedures to bring about such extensions and ensure that the coverage of the scheme can be continually reviewed.

The proposed legislation would, therefore, maintain the present coverage of the scheme, ensure that there is the necessary machinery to extend the scheme to significant non-scheme ports and, where appropriate, to other cargo-handling activities not now in scope, and provide protection for appropriate terms and conditions of employment of those involved in cargo-handling. All the essential features of the present scheme and the principles on which it is administered would also be retained, including joint regulation.

I am inviting the views of all interested parties on the proposals in the consultative document. The Government believe that urgent action is now needed to deal with what is both a long-recognised and a pressing problem and intend to introduce legislation just as quickly as possible.

With the publication of these proposals, I would again urge that the unofficial action continuing in London should now end and that there should be a full return to normal working. The Government are pledged to deal with the underlying problem, and consultations on the proposals should be undertaken without continuing industrial action which can only threaten employment ahead.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I join with him in urging a full return to work pending consultations on the consultative document, which I hope will now take place speedily? Is he aware that the Opposition would wish to reserve their opinion both on his statement today and on the consultative document until we have had a chance to examine the document and discuss it?

Is the right hon. Gentleman also aware, however, that the decision to extend the dock labour scheme to cover a number of non-scheme ports will, I think, be regarded by many Opposition Members and many people outside the House as being a backward step? But the really important thing is that we should judge the proposals when we see them in the light of whether they will contribute to the greater efficiency of cargo handling in our docks. Anything which merely seeks to patch up arrangements which have been coming adrift in recent years will not satisfy either the dock workers in the long run or the workers in the other cargo-handling depots and so on who have become a much more important part of handling cargo in the past few years. Therefore, will the right hon. Gentleman undertake full consultations and then report back to the House as to the result of those consultations?

First, I naturally welcome the right hon. Gentleman's statement about the return to work. The Government certainly hope that there will be a return to work, because the damage that is being inflicted on London's trade and the nation's trade is very considerable. The right hon. Gentleman went on to say that he reserves judgment about our document—and then he gave several judgments. I think that he was wiser in his reservation than in his judgments. I hope, therefore, that he will look careully, in a completely objective spirit, at what we are proposing and possibly, as a result of that, come to different conclusions than those which he has appeared to come to at present.

We believe that these proposals will assist industrial relations. That is their purpose. We believe that they can thereby contribute greatly to the general efficiency of the whole system. What we are seeking to do, as the right hon. Gentleman will find, is to make a system which can deal with the new and changing conditions as they occur.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his first-class statement? In many ways it is, as he will appreciate, long overdue. Does he agree that this decision is of vital importance to ports such as London and Liverpool and that it gives an opportunity for a completely new start in industrial relations but calls for a high order of industrial statesmanship from the trade union leaders of the dock industry?

I certainly think that the trade union leaders concerned have been doing everything they can to try to overcome these difficulties. Mr. Jack Jones in particular a few weeks ago appealed very strongly for the ending of this dispute. I agree with my hon. Friend that in a sense these proposals are long overdue. We do not want to have any delay in seeing that they reach the statute book. That does not mean—I did not answer fully the third question of the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) about consultations—that we shall not have any consultations about the document. Certainly the consultative document is issued for that purpose. But I wish to make it quite clear, particularly to the dockers, that this is not a proposal for a new investigation and a lengthy process of waiting to see the results of an investigation. That is not the proposal at all. There have been enough investigations. What the Government are proposing is action on the basis of this consultative document.

Will the Minister bear in mind the crushing burden of interest rates, particularly on very small firms? I have written to him this week about such a case of a little business which has no less than £30,000 worth of goods locked up in the docks at the moment. Every day counts if employment is to be protected. Will the Minister bear that in mind?

I shall look at the hon. Gentleman's letter carefully. I have not seen it yet. I am not quite sure whether it directly refers to action in the Department of Employment, but certainly I shall look at the letter.

Is there not at least a possibility that these proposals will be opposed by employers in road haulage and warehousing particularly? In the consultations that lie ahead, will the right hon. Gentleman try to make sure that these proposals do not succeed in buying off one industrial dispute at the risk of creating others?

I am fully aware of all these difficulties, but the place to decide this matter now is the House of Commons. I do not believe that we can go ahead with any further lengthy investigations to settle the matter. The judgment on the matter must be settled here. Of course, I believe that it will be a controversial measure, but some of the best measures introduced into the House have been controversial.

As Ministers, are, understandably, usually in the House only when matters concerning their own Departments are being discussed, may I take this opportunity of asking the Secretary of State, as Minister responsible for the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, whether he will undertake to make a statement to the House next week, along with the Secretary of State for Social Services, in relation to the scandalous dispute at Westminster Hospital?

The hon. Gentleman can take the opportunity of putting the question now, but I should be quite out of order if I answered it.

I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman, although he would be out of order, would undertake to make such a statement early next week?

No temptation, not even from the right hon. Gentleman, will entice me into disorderly conduct in the House of Commons.