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Mr. Fowler : I do not think that "precipitately" is exactly the right description for what the Government have done. There has been an evolving consensus about the need to abolish the scheme and to bring forward the legislation. There is no question--there has been no secret-- about the review of the barriers to employment that the Government have carried out. I shall come to those points later. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) rose --
Column 45Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) rose --
Mr. Fowler : No, I shall not give way.
However, nor has the advance of the ports outside the scheme been achieved either by low pay or by casualism. Dockers are well paid and the enormous changes in the way ships are unloaded--with new technology and with containerisation--has transformed the nature of dock work and virtually eliminated the scope of casual work. Dock work is now highly skilled specialist work that often requires the use often of sophisticated machinery. It requires a permanent and well trained work force. The days when large numbers of unskilled labourers assembled waiting to see if there was work for them have gone for good--and everyone is glad of that. To underline that point, the employers in the present scheme ports have given an assurance that after abolition there will be no return to casual employment. Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Riverside) rose --
Mr. Fowler : No, I shall not give way.
That assurance is both in my view, important and unprecedented. The reason we have a dock labour scheme is to prevent casualism. Port companies employing 93 per cent. of registered dock workers have now given an undertaking that there will be no return to the casual system of working and the practice in non-scheme ports already demonstrates that this is a bogus fear.
Those who seek to argue that the scheme should be preserved to prevent casualism should have no public credibility. They are using the argument to cloak other reasons for resisting change.
Mr. Parry rose --
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow) rose --
Mr. Fowler : I give way first to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mr. Parry).
Mr. Parry : Will the Secretary of State give us a categorical assurance that there will not be any casualisation--not even of one job?
Mr. Fowler : I think that I have just repeated the assurance that the employers have given, which is that port companies employing 93 per cent. of registered dock workers have already, in the week after my announcement, given the kind of assurance that the hon. Gentleman is seeking.
That brings me to a fundamental point. The reason why ports covered by the scheme want to see those restrictions go is because they want to be able to compete better with ports outside the scheme and to compete with continental ports that have taken too much of our trade, and to compete in the new position created by 1992 and the single market, and with the railway competition of the Channel tunnel.
Dr. Godman : Will the Secretary of State give way on the point about casualisation?
Mr. Fowler : No, I shall not give way at the moment. Let us be clear. Unless those ports succeed in competing, no conceivable dock labour scheme will prevent the relative decline of scheme ports and of employment prospects. As far as I know, there is unanimity among the wide range of
Column 46port companies covered by the regulations that the dock labour scheme has long since outlived its usefulness and should be ended. The men urging abolition are often those who have spent their lives in the ports industry, who are committed to the future of that industry, and who want to see a future for those who are now registered dock workers as well as for the other two thirds of the workers who are not in the scheme. It is their judgment that the scheme should go, but it is not just their judgment.
Organisations such as the National Association of Warehouse Keepers have supported the change. It comments :
"Over the last 30 years or more there has been a steady withdrawal of industry from the dock areas because of the restrictions imposed upon it by the Scheme and for a long time no warehouse keeper would willingly have built a warehouse in or near a dock area. All this will now be changed, and the Association regards this as good news." Respected transport organisations such as the Freight Transport Organisation take the same view. It says of the scheme : "It has acted as a barrier against investment and progress within the ports industry ; undermined the competitiveness of British ports ; and added to industry's costs. Rid of this massive millstone, importers and exporters confidently expect the British port industry to provide the efficient and competitive services long enjoyed by their Continental competitors."
With the exception of the Morning Star, precious few newspapers--national or regional--believe that the scheme should stay. The Scotsman comments : "Old cargo no longer needed."
The Glasgow Herald states : "Decisive action overdue". The Grimsby Evening Telegraph comments, "Death of a dinosaur", and the Hull Daily Mail states, "Handicap withdrawn". The Manchester Evening News comments : "The time for a change is long overdue." A whole range of national and regional newspapers have all come out in favour of the scheme being changed.
Most significant of all, very few people outside the Transport and General Workers Union's docks section have been prepared to defend the detail of the scheme. All kinds of arguments have been used, but I have heard very few people on radio or television defending the scheme itself. The Leader of the Opposition most certainly has not done so, and nor has the hon. Member for Oldham, West.
Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle) : I refer to the Secretary of State's comments concerning lack of investment, of warehouse building and of new industries entering scheme ports. Three weeks ago, the Prime Minister visited Liverpool free port, which is one of the few successful free ports that the Government have announced. The scheme operates there, and there has been massive inward investment. A very successful free port has been established at Liverpool because of the way in which the scheme operates there.
Mr. Fowler : That success is not because of the scheme. The hon. Gentleman is inaccurate in stating that that is the reason why there has been investment at Liverpool or at other scheme ports. While there has been investment at those ports, the industry says with a totally unanimous voice that if the scheme's restrictions go, investment will increase. One has only to examine the situation at non-scheme ports to see that that has happened.
Mr. John Townend (Bridlington) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the container terminal in the city of
Column 47Hull, which is represented by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), is closed? There has been massive investment at that terminal, which has three gantry cranes. At Grimsby, those cranes are operated by 12 men, but at Hull the unions want 23 men, even when there are no ships. What is worse, they not only want to be paid ordinary time but overtime for tea breaks, lunch breaks and even until 6.30 pm when they are not working.
Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East) rose
Mr. Fowler : Perhaps my hon. Friend and other hon. Members representing Hull constituencies would like to conduct their own debate.
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Bridlington (Mr. Townsend) does not represent any part of Hull. When he fought me, the electors threw him out.
Mr. Fowler : I apologise for making that important mistake.
Mr. Townend : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Unlike the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), I was born in Hull.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean) : That is not a point of order.
Mr. Fowler : All that leads to my initial conclusion that the debate about Hull should be left to other hon. Members.
The attitude of people in not defending details of the scheme is not surprising, because the scheme suffers from fundamental flaws. First, it creates a statutory monopoly for dock work in 40 of our main ports. That monopoly is enforced by criminal penalties, which is a wholly inappropriate use of the law to limit employment opportunities. Only employers and dockers registered with one of the local dock boards can undertake dock work in ports covered by the scheme. It is a criminal offence punishable by up to three months' imprisonment for anyone to employ without permission anyone who is not a registered dock worker to perform work covered by the scheme. No other industry in this country suffers from those penalties.
Mr. Skinner : There is. Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
The effect of that statutory monopoly is to deprive employers in scheme ports of the ability to manage their own work force. It also fosters a belief that the scheme, not the performance of the port, protects jobs.
Secondly, the scheme has bred restrictive practices. If unloading a cargo requires specialist skills that registered dock workers cannot supply, the employer is obliged both to pay specialist staff to undertake the unloading and to pay registered dock workers to stand and watch the work being done. Those practices remain widespread.
Mr. Skinner : Will the Secretary of State give way now?
Mr. Fowler : No, I shall not give way again.
Column 48Those practices are sustained by the scheme's monopoly, which allows unions to insist on such payments on pain of blocking the loading or unloading of cargo.
Thirdly, as a consequence of attempting to define in statute who should do a particular job, the scheme inevitably suffers from anomalies and bureaucracy. Each scheme port has a complex set of rules about what is, and is not, dock work--which are in effect demarcation lines frozen by statute. The definitions of dock work applied under the scheme date back to the second world war and beyond and take no account of the enormous changes in dock work since then. The distinction between ports inside and outside the scheme is now quite arbitrary. Southampton is in the scheme, but Portsmouth is not. Liverpool and London are in the scheme but Dover and Folkstone are not. The inexplicable differences in the treatment of the fishing ports of Aberdeen, Peterhead, Grimsby and Hull--and their consequences for business and jobs--reveal the scheme's inadequacies. In Aberdeen, only registered dock workers can handle white fish, while herring and mackerel can be landed by the fishermen themselves.
Mr. Skinner rose --
Mr. Fowler : No, I shall not allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene on that point.
Nearby Peterhead is outside the scheme and has captured a substantial part of Aberdeen's business. At Grimsby, only registered dock workers can unload fish from boats of more than 60 ft, while in nearby Hull all fish landings are excluded from the scheme--so Hull's fishing port has attracted business away from Grimsby.
The common factor in all those cases is that business and jobs in operations covered by the scheme have been lost to ports free of its restrictions. Those restrictions are at the heart of the stresses and strains that we have seen in recent weeks in Aberdeen and Grimsby.
Mr. Skinner : The Secretary of State refers to the scheme's division of labour and to its restrictive practices, but the same could be said of the legal profession, as to the division of labour between solicitors and barristers. Why is that, when judges took the decision to go on strike today, because of the proposed reforms to the legal system, the Government decided to call off the dogs? If the Secretary of State is so concerned at people having jobs for life, why do the Government not use that argument to abolish the House of Lords?
Mr. Fowler : I started this section of my speech by saying that every conceivable argument has been used except any defence of the dock labour scheme, and the hon. Gentleman has just underlined that point.
The fourth characteristic of the scheme is that it adds to costs. The price of the inefficiencies that it has created has been paid by consumers through the higher costs of goods in the shops ; by industry through the price of raw materials and exports ; and by the taxpayer through the financial support that successive Governments have given to the port industry, and through Government contributions to voluntary redundancies.
What has the scheme achieved? It has certainly not achieved a secure career for registered dock workers ; nor has it achieved good industrial relations, although I have no doubt that the authors of the scheme thought that by
Column 49creating a statutory monopoly for dock work and ending the abuses of casual working they would bring about a significant improvement in industrial relations.
There have been major strikes in every decade since the scheme began in 1947. The number of days lost as a result of strikes by registered dock workers in the scheme ports, according to the National Dock Labour Board, is still three times the national average. Between 1985 and 1987, the scheme ports lost 528 man days for every 1,000 employees, compared with a total of 183 in the rest of industry. In the 20 years between 1967 and 1987, there were 3,569 strikes involving registered dock workers, resulting in over 4 million working days being lost in scheme ports. That is a rate of more than three disputes per week.
In his response to my statement the hon. Member for Oldham, West suggested that this was a relatively small scheme covering "only 9, 500 workers". Let us be clear what we are talking about : we are talking about the future of the ports now within the scheme, which at present handle 70 per cent. of our national trade. Those who have argued that the scheme should be left to wither simply do not understand the facts. As long as the scheme continues to operate, our great ports such as Liverpool, London and Southampton will remain subject to all its restrictions. There are only two ways for them to escape from the scheme : either Parliament abolishes it or they close down completely. Abolition will ensure that all dock workers, wherever they are employed, will have the same employment rights and obligations as the rest of the working population.
Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport) : Does the Secretary of State accept that employers now have a responsibility to negotiate with their employees? If they come up with agreed and more generous redundancy terms, will they be included in the legislation? If that is so, a substantial number of people will accept the case that the right hon. Gentleman has made for abolition.
Mr. Fowler : I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's support. I do not believe that anyone can negotiate on the scheme itself ; that, I think, is a matter for Parliament. Nor do I believe that Ministers wish to prejudice the outcome of any talks taking place tomorrow : that would not be sensible.
Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East) : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, since February 1984, the port employers have made six attempts to discuss the scheme with their employees in the TGWU, and that every such offer has been refused by the union, in defence of the indefensible?
Mr. Fowler : I shall come to that point. If the House will forgive me, I will not give way again ; otherwise, my speech will go on far too long for the confines of the debate.
Ending the scheme will not affect either the pay or the pensions of those who are now registered dock workers. Neither is covered by the scheme or comes within the responsibilities of the National Dock Labour Board. Nor should anyone suppose that dock work, whether inside or outside the scheme, is low-paid.
Over the past 40 years--I now come to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Mr.
Column 50Sayeed)--there have been countless opportunities for negotiation to reduce the damaging controls imposed by the scheme.
Mr. Robert Hughes rose --
Mr. Fowler I am very sorry ; I have given way a number of times, and I will not do so again.
Throughout those 40 years the TGWU has shown no sign of willingness even to consider the changes needed to meet the competitive pressures on scheme ports. In 1986 my right hon. Friend the then Transport Secretary, now Secretary of State for the Environment, invited unions and employers to discuss voluntary arrangements to replace the scheme. The national secretary of the TGWU docks group, Mr. Connolly, replied--and he replied very quickly :
"having in mind our position that the Dock Labour Scheme is to remain, I see no point in joint discussions to provide for arrangements which might follow its removal."
In 1987 he was reported by Lloyd's List as saying :
"The policy of the Docks and Waterways Group has not changed. There will be opposition to the amendment or revision of the Scheme, and that opposition will take the form of a national dock strike." The fact is that the TGWU has constantly sought the tightening and extension of the scheme's controls, not their relaxation. It has done so not by negotiation, but by using the power that the scheme's statutory monopoly of dock work gives it to bring scheme ports to a halt with strike action. The Bill aims to bring the scheme to an end quickly but in an orderly fashion, and with continued special provision for dock workers' severance.
Clause 1 repeals the legislation that underpins the scheme, and preserves the board's powers to make provision for the training and welfare of dock workers until its dissolution. Clause 2 requires the board to wind up its affairs quickly but in an orderly manner. It makes provision for the disposal of its assets at less than market vaule, with my permission. The purpose is to provide an incentive for those in the industry who have already paid for the board's activities through levies on their business to take over any training and medical facilities that the industry needs.
Clause 3 allows the board to be replaced if it fails to comply with its duties. Clause 4 writes off all the board's outstanding liabilities for loans that it has received from Government, and provides for its running costs. Clause 5 provides for any registered dock worker who becomes redundant within three years of the ending of the scheme to receive redundancy payments on a considerably more generous scale than those which are open to most other employees. After only 15 years' service, dock workers will be eligible for redundancy payments of £35,000 if they lose their jobs in the 18 months after the scheme is abolished--that is, until early 1991--and payment of £20,000 if they lose their jobs in the subsequent 18 months. The cost of the payments will be shared equally between the Government and the individual employer concerned. The detailed arrangements will be set out in draft regulations to be tabled shortly, and will be available to the Standing Committee. Clause 6 extends provisions of the Employment Protection Act 1978 to those who were registered dock workers immediately before Royal Assent. That means that registered dockers will acquire individual rights not to
Column 51be unfairly dismissed, for example, and to receive written particulars of their terms of employment, which the scheme denied to them.
This is a statutory scheme. It was brought into existence by Parliament, and Parliament is the proper place for decisions about its future ; there should be no attempt to usurp that role. I do not believe that there will be any public support for strike action that is directed towards retaining the provisions of the scheme. Furthermore, I believe that the House will want to hear that clearly and unequivocally stated by the hon. Member for Oldham, West. His latest statements suggest that he now has doubts about industrial action, but I have to point out that, when the hon. Gentleman spoke to a meeting of the national ports shop stewards committee in London at the end of January, he had an entirely different message. According to International Freighting Weekly of 7 February 1989 and a similar report in the Morning Star of 30 January 1989, he gave the same message. I shall quote from International Freighting Weekly. The hon. Gentleman said :
"An all-out strike by Britain's dockers in defence of their dock labour scheme would have the full backing of the Labour Party."
Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West) : If the right hon. Gentleman had bothered to check with me as to whether such press reports were accurate, I could have told him--I have here a copy of the speech that I made on that day--that I made no such statement, or anything like it.
Mr. Fowler : The same statement was reported also in the Morning Star : the hon. Gentleman
"pledged his party's full support in any fight to defend the scheme."
I imagine that that statement is also withdrawn. I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has said. We have now made substantial progress. If I am wrong, I shall gladly withdraw what I have said.
Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke) : Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Mr. Fowler : Perhaps my hon. Friend will allow my to continue. I hope that the hon. Member for Oldham, West will listen to what I have to say. The House will expect him to make clear his views on industrial action. I take it, from what the hon. Gentleman has just said, that he is opposed to industrial action to seek to preserve the dock labour scheme.
Mr. Nicholas Bennett : Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Mr. Allan Roberts : Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Fowler : No, I shall not give way--not even to my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett), and certainly not to the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts).
The hon. Member for Oldham, West made a statement about what was reported to be his attitude. He now refuses to make any statement about his view on future industrial
Column 52action. If he intends to make that clear in his speech, the House will listen to it with interest. He will also have to say whether it is Labour party policy to restore the national dock labour scheme. Few people would understand industrial action, and even less the hon. Gentleman's backing of strike action for a scheme that the Labour party would not restore, even if it were to form a future Government. Those fundamental questions must be addressed in the debate.
Mr. Nicholas Bennett : Before my right hon. Friend leaves the labour party's attitude, the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) has just said that he made no such statement about a strike. I have the transcript of "BBC Lancashire News'" of 10 April 1989. After being asked about whether there would be a strike, the hon. Member for Oldham, West said :
"then frankly we have no alternative but to support, if there were a strike."
Mr. Fowler : The hon. Member for Oldham, West has a great deal of explaining to do. The hon. Gentleman characteristically says to audiences what they want to hear from him. We shall want to hear tonight what precisely is his attitude, and that of his party, towards a strike.
The first dock labour scheme was approved by this House in 1947--over 40 years ago. At that time the ports covered by the scheme accounted for virtually all our trade and employed 80,000 dock workers. The work they did was labour-intensive and at best semi-skilled.
The position today is radically different. Dock work has been transformed. It is now capital-intensive and it requires a permanent labour force with the skills to operate sophisticated equipment. There are now 140 employers providing jobs in dock work in the scheme ports, compared with over 1,500 in the 1950s. Fewer than 14,000 dock workers are now employed in all our ports, of whom 9,000 are in scheme ports. It is only improved output, taking advantage of new technology, which will guarantee continuing good pay and conditions for all port workers. The dock labour scheme can provide no such guarantee. On the contrary, the scheme ports have increasingly lost ground to the ports outside the scheme.
The Government are now asking Parliament to bring the dock labour scheme to an end in 1989. It has manifestly become irrelevant to the needs of a modern port industry and it is manifestly damaging the efficiency of the scheme ports. In 1947, Parliament created the statutory monopoly in our scheme ports. Only Parliament can end the statutory monopoly of dock work and abolish the dock labour scheme. The Bill is vital to the future of our ports industry. More than that, it will remove a major barrier to the expansion of business and employment in this country. I believe that this measure is in the best interests of the ports now covered by the scheme, that it is in the best interests of port areas where development is now being constricted and, above all, that it is in the best interests of all the people working in the ports industry.
Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West) : Despite the long diatribe to which we have just been treated by the Secretary of State on the dock labour scheme, the Bill has a great deal more to do with political diversion for the Government than with what is happening in the docks. There has been no unrest in the docks for several years.
Column 53Productivity in scheme ports has been bounding ahead, as it has in non-scheme ports. There was no mention of abolition of the scheme in the Tory party's 1987 election manifesto.
The Government are slipping fast in the polls. All their main policies--for the National Health Service, for the poll tax and for water privatisation-- are deeply unpopular and they are in desperate need of a scapegoat to provide an alibi for the continuing series of unprecedented trade deficits and the likely run on the pound that the Chancellor's bungling is expected soon to bring about.
Mr. Sayeed : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Meacher : No, not for the moment.
That is not just my view. It was confirmed by Tory Members of Parliament on 12 October 1988--more than six months ago. The Channel 4 programme "Dispatches" broadcast a documentary entitled "Trouble on the Waterfront", which discussed the dock labour scheme at length. During the programme the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold)--one of the leaders of the Tory Back -Bench campaign for abolition--said : "I think we could well have a sudden announcement rather than a preview in the Queen's Speech."
The programme presenter then immediately spelt out what was meant.
Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham) : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Meacher : I shall give way in a moment. The hon. Gentleman need not be so anxious.
The programme presenter then made perfectly clear what was meant by those words. He said :
that is, abolition--
"for a politically rainy day is the third option. Tory MPs and industry sources have suggested to Dispatches that should the Government get into serious difficulties, e.g. over the balance of payments, then they would use the repeal of the Scheme to rally their supporters and public opinion against the unions."