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National Union Of Seamen (Dispute)

Volume 996: debated on Monday 12 January 1981

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3.32 pm

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will make a statement on the strike called by the National Union of Seamen.

Wage negotiations in the shipping industry are for the employers and the maritime unions. The shipping industry has to operate in a strongly competitive world-wide market. The future size of the United Kingdom merchant fleet and its job opportunities therefore depend primarily on its operating costs, including its labour costs, being internationally competitive. An illustration of this is the loss of 8,000 jobs in the past three years. I hope that it will be possible to reach a settlement that recognises this.

May I first congratulate the hon. Gentleman on assuming his new duties in what he may have considered a fairly tranquil field? However, his first venture has produced a grossly unsatisfactory and uninformative answer.

Is the hon. Gentleman in touch with both sides of the industry in this potentially very damaging dispute? What effect has the strike had on the shipping industry today? What is the position over North Sea oil rig supply vessels?

If the Minister agrees to see both sides, will he bear in mind, in considering competitiveness, the fact that British seafarers are the second-worst paid in Europe and that many of our competitors do not have to bear many of the costs of British shipowners, particularly some of the training and repatriation costs? Will he also bear in mind that seafarers work a 64 to 70-hour week, enjoy a lower life expectancy than many people in other industries, and have substantially higher accident rates? Will he further take into account the fact that the overtime rates in this industry are completely out of line with those for mainland industries?

Finally, will the hon. Gentleman use every possible endeavour to persuade both sides—the NUS has said that it will be prepared to accept this—to invite an arbitration award, when all the cards could be placed on the table? The terms of reference could include the competitiveness of the industry internationally, the ability of the industry to pay and the whole issue of overtime, as well as the offer made on basic pay. What is wrong with the Minister suggesting that approach?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind personal remarks.

I repeat that wage negotiations are for the employers and the maritime unions. If we price ourselves out of highly competitive markets, inevitably jobs will be lost and severe damage done in industrial areas.

It is too early to say what the consequences of the strike will be, including its effect on North Sea oil operations.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that wage increases of 54 per cent. have been granted to seamen in the past three years. The danger is, as the facts show, that we are becoming increasingly non-competitive in northern European shipping terms.

It is for the parties involved to decide how best to resolve their dispute, whether by resuming direct negotiations, by conciliation or by arbitration. ACAS is always willing to help. However, it will be helpful if I say that I understand that the employers would be willing for an objective investigation to be carried out into the nature and extent of overtime working at sea, which is at the heart of the dispute.

Order. Although we are dealing with a private notice question and not a statement, I shall call the right hon. Gentleman and the two hon. Gentlemen who have risen.

I do not wish to complicate the matter, but has my hon. Friend consulted, or will he consult, his colleagues responsible for energy, defence and aviation to ensure that if there is a prolonged strike no loss or harm will be caused to North Sea oil and gas interests? Does he accept that it would be quite wrong for the Government to allow that to happen?

I assure my hon. Friend that we are closely in touch with ministerial colleagues. We wish to do everything possible to mitigate potential damage.

May I also congratulate the Minister? Can he assure us that if the strikes continue the Government will bear in mind the difficultes that may be caused, particularly to islanders?

The Government are very conscious of the difficulties that could be caused in the Outer Islands, which the right hon. Gentleman has in mind, and the Channel Islands. Such considerations will be closely borne in mind.

Is the Minister aware that I believe that he was right to refer to high overtime payments, as seamen work over 30 hours a week overtime? Does he accept that seamen work under laws passed by this House and can go to goal for refusing to work overtime? Does he further accept that there is therefore a special responsibility on the Government to ask the shipowners to come to arbitration to consider cuts in overtime? They imposed those cuts after the wage increases of 54 per cent., which were therefore in reality only 5 per cent. increases because of the loss of overtime. Finally, is the Minister aware that the union welcomes the loss of overtime, because seamen work far too long at sea, which leads to accidents and collisions?

These are complicated matters. I have already informed the House of the employers' willingness to enter into objective investigations on overtime questions.

I previously allowed the hon. Gentleman to speak for some time, as though this were a statement.

The Minister has made a complacent statement, which I deeply regret. He was selective in his reliance on certain figures. Why does he not take into account the fact that Danish seafarers are paid US—1,139 monthly, compared with US—575 monthly for British seafarers? Why does he not quote the suggestion of the NUS about arbitration, rather than rely entirely on the employers' case? Why does he not readily say to the House "I shall do my best to get both sides to accept arbitration"? That is the sensible way out of the dispute.

I have already dealt with the facts relating to the comparisons on wages mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. I assure the House that the Government realise that it is a serious matter. I am concerned about the possible consequences—not only the loss of seamen's jobs if the strike proceeds, but the damage that could be caused to our industrial areas.