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Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West) : Two versions of events have been given in the debate. One version has been given by Conservative Members, who generated the baying, howling and screeching that accompanied the initial announcement of the Bill. They have made deliberate attempts to attack the arguments of my hon. Friends, who are those most likely to have had experience of working in, rather than managing, the docks. Therein lies the difference in attitude. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) has considerable hands-on experience not only as a member of the Transport and General Workers
Column 76Union, but of working in the docks. When we read the report of the debate in Hansard tomorrow, that difference in attitude will come across clearly. I shall not go over the ground so adequately covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston, save to associate myself with all his comments. Instead, I wish to knock some of the suggestions that have been put forward about why the Bill is required at this time.
The city of Dundee lies on the River Tay. For many years it has required the port to bring in the main sustenance for Dundee's manufacturing base-- jute. Although Dundee has a long history as a port--dealing not only, but mainly, in jute--its history has not been recognised in the comments of the Secretary of State or his hon. Friends. In Dundee, which is a scheme port, approximately £1 million will have been invested by the Dundee port authority in the period 1986 to 1992. That investment has been made because the authority is confident of a return on it. Not only will that investment be made until 1992, but even now it is predicted that it will rise to £2 million after 1992. Dundee port authority can make that commitment because of its confidence in the adaptability and flexibility of its partner, the Dundee Stevedore Company, and in its dock-worker employees, all of whom are committed to the long-term prosperity not only of the port but of all the people who live in Dundee. The Dundee dock workers created the stability which led to the ending of the scandal of 250,000 tonnes of Scottish grain going south in lorries to lie in stores before being exported from ports in the south. In 1979, the port of Dundee handled 800 tonnes of grain. With a change of management in the 1980s and a new determination to work with the Dundee Stevedore Company and the dockers, four new sheds were built, and a new grain elevator and mechanised handling equipment were installed. As a result, the figure rose in 1988 to 128,000 tonnes of Scottish grain being exported from a Scottish port. That investment by the Dundee port authority has been possible because of the good working relationship in the scheme port of Dundee where there are no shareholders to pay off. There have been record profits because prices have been held steady for two years due to the flexibility and adaptability of the work force and, indeed, are likely to rise this year and next year by no more than the rate of inflation. As I have said, there are no shareholders to pay off, and because of the money that the port has managed to gain from the EEC there has been massive investment and development in Dundee itself. The authority's investment in Dundee's future started long before the Secretary of State's announcement in the House. Dundee is a scheme port and working together has meant that it has been able to provide for its long-term future since long before the announcement. The Secretary of State is no longer in his place, but in his absence perhaps I can address this point to the Minister who is present--the Minister for Public Transport, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo)--and ask him whether, having started the precedent of using selected quotations from selected newspapers in support of the abolition of the scheme, the Secretary of State will accept quotations from the same Scottish newspapers about the abolition or otherwise of the poll tax in Scotland? I suspect that, if we asked the Secretary of State
Column 77whether he accepted the views of those newspapers on the poll tax as it applies to Scotland, we should get a quite different response. As the Secretary of State has referred to the efforts made by the port employers to discuss the scheme, may we have on record the dates when the port employers officially wrote, offered or asked for negotiations or when such requests were made formally, across the table, during negotiations? Let us have on record the dates of the five occasions when that occurred.
The Dundee port authority is convinced that it does not need these provisions to ensure a profitable port in Dundee. Speaking the day after the Secretary of State's announcement in the House, the chief executive of the port authority, Captain John Watson, said that he had been taken by surprise, as he was sure had a number of people in the industry, by the speed with which the Government intended to proceed. He added :
"The battle cry of late seems to have been get rid of the scheme with little done by anyone to assure registered dock workers that there is life after the scheme."
Like other employers, the Dundee Stevedore Company has now responded to that statement. I remind the House that prior to the scheme, there were 68 companies in Dundee which hired men, mainly on a day-to-day basis, in much the same conditions as those outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston, which were not only archaic but an insult to the workers and to any form of employer-worker relationship.
The Dundee Stevedore Company has made it quite clear that, because of the amount of work and because of its duty to those who use the port for jute, paper and BP oil, there should not be any reduction in the number of dockers employed in the port. The chairman, Mr. Ronnie Caldwell, has confirmed that to me today. More importantly, he confirmed it to the dockers in a letter last Friday in which he gave a guarantee that there would be no return to the system of casual labour and said that he looked forward to working with a skilled, competitive and motivated labour force. He emphasised the need for management and employees to work together to take advantage of the competitive opportunities which exist. I emphasise that that was said against the backdrop of a good working relationship.
When I have asked dockers how they respond to those comments, naturally they have said that they are happy to hear that initial statement from their employer, but they have made the point that there is a thing called agency labour and that it is already used by several ports. It is also used in other industries in which there is a core work force, but where there is no continuity of employment. Continuity of employment should be a vital component of any new agreement. The dockers would not be asking or expecting too much to expect that the negotiations should start now so that conditions similar to those that they now have can be discussed and perhaps agreed with their present employers.
The port employers say that they want to talk to the workers and the workers say that they want to talk to their employers, but they want to ensure that those discussions are not held in an atmosphere in which pressure is being put solely on the workers to give up something for which they have fought and struggled for many years. The Government could help that process by making clear in
Column 78Committee exactly what they would like to see replace the dock labour scheme, and what guarantees they intend to provide to the industry's workers.
A characteristic of those who work in the ports is fear and uncertainty about an industry whose history is one of regulation being required to ensure decent, humane working conditions for those working in it. I do not want a return to the days when dock workers had to go round the various pubs in Dundee--whether it was Black Jock's, the Market Bar or Brady's--and bribe the gaffer with drink, and the next morning have to remind him or scrabble about on the ground for the few pegs that were left because the gaffer had forgotten that he had been paid the price of work the night before. We want the industry to be regulated. That regulation can only come through discussion, and the workers want that discussion. We shall not support the Bill because of the deliberate attempts by the Government to take away rights hard fought for by workers in an industry which requires regulation.
Sir David Mitchell (Hampshire, North-West) : I intervene briefly, because there are no docks in my constituency. However, the towns of Andover and of nearby Basingstoke are major customers of ports, and in this debate I speak for the customer. Much of industry's competitive ability is affected by the cost of transport and of handling commodities through our docks. Cargo handling is more expensive in United Kingdom ports than it is in continental ports, to the disadvantage of our country's manufacturers, jobs and prosperity.
The first question that arises from the debate is whether there is now a case for treating the 9,400 scheme port dockers differently from the remaining 3,600 port workers. Listening to the debate, it is clear why dock workers used to need different employment arrangements. I may be an unlikely ally for the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer)--who has not yet caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker--but on many occasions during the 20 or more years since I entered the House, I have heard the hon. Gentleman speak out against the evils of the old system of casual labour.
I agree with the hon. Members for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) and for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross), that the system of hiring casual labour was abhorrent and that employers behaved unacceptably. I join Opposition Members in looking back with anger at what used to happen. However, that was many years ago. Today, we must consider instead the current situation, by examining the non-scheme ports.
Today's dockers in non-scheme ports are well paid. Many of them are better paid than those working in scheme ports. They are represented by the same trade union, and casual labour accounts for only 6 per cent. of their work force. That figure is comparable with the percentage of casual workers in catering and in many other industries, including no doubt many of the services with which right hon. and hon. Members are provided through the facilities of the House. The dock labour scheme may have been the right answer in its day, but times have changed. The House should look at the downside of that scheme. First, there is the downward spiral to consider. A port or firm may suffer contraction, perhaps because it deals in a certain
Column 79commodity, or because, as in Liverpool, of our trade with the European Community and the expansion of cargo handling through east coast ports. The contraction may be due to a commodity such as leather being replaced by plastic, or to some other change of pattern in trade.
Whatever the reason, some firms within a particular port will suffer a decline and go out of business. When that happens, their dock workers are allocated to other employers who neither need nor want them. The consequence is a serious additional cost for those other firms, making their operations uneconomical and forcing them out of business. The downward spiral is exacerbated as their unwanted labour is in turn dumped on to other firms, who find themselves severely overmanned and bearing all the higher operating costs and disadvantages that follow from that situation.
That downward spiral has two further effects. First, the profits of the remaining firms will fall, so that they are unable to finance the costs of modernisation and of installing new equipment on the scale that they should. Secondly, as modern equipment usually requires fewer people to operate it, the overmanned firms have no case for investing in it. One of the major downside effects of the dock labour scheme is the extent to which it inhibits and damages investment in the scheme ports on the scale that would allow them to compete effectively.
The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) referred to investment in certain scheme ports, but it is way below the level required to achieve competitive, cost-effective handling of cargo through those ports.
Sir David Mitchell : One can clearly illustrate the downward spiral by examining the way in which scheme ports have lost trade to non-scheme ports. Earlier, one of my hon. Friends spoke of the way in which manufacturers avoid sending their goods through scheme ports because of all the damage that comes from doing that. Felixstowe's trade has increased 14 times over the past 20 years, but at the same time we have seen a decline in the volume of trade at scheme ports. Investment is the key to cost- effective movement of goods through our docks and ports. The abolition of the dock labour scheme will help to make more investment possible. I hope that the House will support the Bill, which will result in better-paid dockers and--speaking as the voice of the dock's customers--a better, more cost-effective service to manufacturers.
Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Riverside) : I am glad that I have caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and that I am able to pledge my full support for dock workers in Liverpool and throughout the United Kingdom. I speak on their behalf because I probably have more relatives employed on the docks than any other right hon. and hon. Member. More than 80 years ago my great-grandfather worked on the Liverpool docks, as did my two grandfathers and my father's brothers. Recently, my own brothers worked under the inhuman and disgraceful casual labour system.
Column 80My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) spoke of the way that workers were hired in Dundee. The same was true of Liverpool dockers. They were treated like cattle, and were employed only if they bought the foreman or the ganger a pint of beer, or even because they were of the same religion. We never want to see such things happen again in the docks.
The Secretary of State says that abolition of the scheme will not mean a return to casual labour. However, I believe that employers will jump at the opportunity to make bigger profits at the expense of dock workers. In business questions last week, I suggested to the Leader of the House that right hon. and hon. Members who serve as consultants to port employers should not be allowed to participate in debates on the Bill or to vote on it. I was not satisfied with the reply from the Leader of the House, and when my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) raised the same point with Mr. Speaker, he received a similar answer.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) said earlier, some employers are inclined to bring back casual labour. This is nothing but a deliberate ploy by the Government to provoke a dock strike. Thatcher dogmatism is showing its hand. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) put his finger neatly on the button last week when he said that the Government would find a strike very convenient in cutting imports. He also referred to the Government's failure to refer the scheme to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.
There has been no consultation between the port employers and the TGWU. The Government have been influenced by Conservative backwoodsmen--many of whom have never seen a dock in their lives--especially those in paid posts who will gain if the scheme is abolished. There is also an unholy rush to get the Bill on to the statute book, when more important Bills such as the Children Bill are awaiting consideration. The port of Liverpool employed 25,000 workers 30 or 40 years ago. Now it employs fewer than 2,000. That does not say much for the argument that jobs are for life, which the House should recognise as a myth.
This Bill has been born out of party political considerations and expediency : action is being taken against dock workers in support of Tory dogma. I understand that Ron Todd, general secretary of the TGWU, is trying to open discussions with the port employers, but I shall support the Liverpool dockers whether or not they receive official backing for a strike. They believe and trust in us, and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) has already spelt out what they have gone through over the years. Like him I pledge my support to the dockers, not only in Liverpool, but throughout the United Kingdom. We will not agree to any system that would bring back casualisation and use dock workers as chattels in the hands of unscrupulous employers.
I shall conclude my speech, Mr. Deputy Speaker--as I know that more than 40 hon. Members are trying to catch your eye--by saying that Opposition Members will give full support to the dock workers, and will oppose the Tory Government's deliberate attempt to provoke a strike that no one else wants and to put the clock back many years.
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Mr. Mike Woodcock (Ellesmere Port and Neston) : It was the economist Milton Friedman who said that there is no such thing as a free lunch. He meant that in any industry, whatever the cost, someone somewhere must pay for waste, inefficiency, restrictive practices and a failure to come to terms with economic reality. Until a few years ago there were quite a few free-lunchers in my constituency : managements that refused to come to terms with market forces and trade unions that clung to restrictive practices.
The history of my constituency is intertwined with ports. Neston, on the Dee, was originally Nelson's dockyard ; it later became the main port for Irish trade. Ellesmere Port, on the Manchester ship canal, was a great transit port between the canal boats of the Shropshire union canal and the ocean-going vessels on the ship canal. Now, however, the largest employers in my constituency are not the ports but Vauxhall Motors and Shell, which have important lessons for the docks industry and which also rely on that industry.
The Vauxhall site in my constituency was purchased by General Motors as a future expansion site for Europe. It could have been one of the largest vehicle manufacturing plants in Europe ; instead restrictive practices, militant trade unions and repeated strikes ensured that almost all the investment went to Germany. As late as 1983 the Vauxhall plant in my constituency lost 60 man days per employee through industrial action ; in 1987 it lost only two. Those figures illustrate graphically the change in attitudes over the past few years. Vauxhall has come back from the brink ; there is new investment and a sense of reality, although the empty acres remain as a lasting monument to the missed opportunities of the 1970s. Similarly, the Shell plant in my constituency was once the largest refinery in Europe. In the early 1980s, however, an independent survey showed that it was one of the most inefficient in terms of labour utilisation and working practices. It was overstaffed and full of restrictive practices ; it was an unpleasant place to work ; attitudes were counter-productive, and employees were not involved in decision-making. Many thought that the company owed them a living. Profit was a dirty word, and people felt that they had a right to a job without any commitment. It was yesterday's operation with yesterday's ideas and practices. Without a fundamental change in attitudes and values, the plant would have closed.
I am pleased to say that that plant now has a secure future. The company has invested massively ; jobs are secure, and pay has increased. Why has that happened? It has happened simply because people recognised that there was only one forward and that a massive change in attitudes was required. As a result, the refinery at Stanlow is now a monument to the success of the second industrial revolution.
Stories like those of Vauxhall and Shell are commonplace, not only in my constituency but throughout the United Kingdom. But what about the docks industry? Today it is nowhere near as important to the local economy in my constituency. The silting of the River Dee has meant the closure of the port of Neston. The major part of the Ellesmere Port docks is now the national waterways museum : although a major tourist attraction, it is not a working port. Some docks remain : in particular, we have an efficient, modern container terminal and a
Column 82regular roll-on/roll-off ferry service to the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that the port would be much more efficient without the dock labour scheme.
Many registered ports in this country are overstaffed and full of restrictive practices. They abound in counter-productive attitudes. They are unpleasant places to work, where some people think that they have a right to a job without commitment or that others owe them a living. Those are fundamentally the same problems and attitudes that characterised Shell and Vauxhall, and the national dock labour scheme has perpetuated them. It has stifled initiative, development and enterprise.
Is it not ironic that the once great port of Liverpool, when it was registered in 1947, had a work force of 22,000? It now has a workforce of only 1,200, and no dock worker has been hired there for 16 years. There are dockers surplus to requirements and a shortage of work, and industrial disputes continue. By contrast, Felixstowe has seen prosperity. Wages are high : some workers are earning as much as £700 a week. Overtime is plentiful, and 2,000 people are employed. In the past two years the labour force has increased by 200. Last year the port handled 21 per cent. more cargo, and not a single day has been lost through industrial relations disputes since 1974. They are the sharp contrasts that highlight the capacity of the national dock labour scheme to stop progress and drive jobs away from registered scheme ports. Those attitudes and practices have not helped the nation, local economies or registered dock workers.
When trade unions abuse the privileges that the law has granted to them, ultimately it is rank and file union members who suffer. To mix metaphors, all those free lunches eventually come home to roost. As John Harvey-Jones, the ex-chairman of ICI remarked :
"the reality of the future is that the interests of trade unions, union members and management lie together."
It is sad that entrenched attitudes have made the Bill necessary, but necessary it is. It is time for trade unions to realise the wisdom of John Harvey-Jones's words and it is time for Opposition Members to stop defending the indefensible. They do themselves no good whatsoever. They only show, yet again, that they are yesterday'smen with yesterday's ideas, yesterday's policies and yesterday's attitudes. The interests of dock managers and dock workers lie together. They lie in the abolition of this dreadful scheme.
I am sure that John Harvey-Jones will not be pleased about having been quoted by a Conservative Member of Parliament in a debate of this nature. I know of no other industrialist in this country who has such a progressive outlook towards the trade union movement as John Harvey-Jones, whose reputation has not been enhanced by what was said about him by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Woodcock). I am sure that he would want me to defend him. Earlier I raised a point of order and expressed my anger about the way in which Conservative Members were
Column 83behaving. We were talking about people's jobs and the future of their families. In the few minutes that are available to me, I want to emphasise that point of order.
I do not apologise for my personal characteristics. I do not find it possible to mourn for the dead of Liverpool from 3.30 to 5 o'clock and then from 5 o'clock to 10 o'clock to bay at the dockers of Liverpool. What happened this afternoon was absolutely disgusting. I have never witnessed such reprehensible behaviour as that of Conservative Back Benchers when the Opposition Front Bench spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) was speaking. They knew that he was dealing with the future of working people.
I put that on record for a deliberate reason. Like most other hon. Members, I make available to local newspapers the comments that I make in the House. I want everybody--Conservative, Labour, nationalists, Democrats and those of no politics--in the Falkirk, East constituency to understand the contempt with which my dockers were treated by Conservative Members during the early part of the debate. The Secretary of State gave the game away. Part of the speech that he read and that he did not have time to change was written for him in the belief that today we should be at the start of a strike in the scheme ports.
Mr. Fowler indicated dissent.
The Secretary of State wants a strike. When he spoke at a dinner last Friday evening, the Chancellor of the Exchequer challenged the dockers to go on strike. That is why I am absolutely delighted that Ron Todd and John Connolly have managed, by their wise counsel, to persuade the dockers not to strike. If working people go on strike, they must do so on the grounds they choose, not on grounds chosen for them by the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State for Employment. They must go on strike at a time that they choose, not at a time chosen for them by the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State for Employment. Furthermore, they must go on strike when they have a reasonable chance of success, not when working people and their families will be trampled on, as they were effectively trampled on by the conduct of Conservative Back Benchers during the early part of the debate.
There are three elements to be considered in the ports industry, one of which has not yet been mentioned. The three elements are the port employers, the dockers and the shipowners. The shipowner plays an important part.
The shipowner plays an important part in the development of the docks industry. Reference has already been made to the Scottish ports. Scottish shipowners are
Column 84deliberately choosing not to bring their vessels to any Scottish port, be it a scheme port or a non-scheme port. They are paying the road haulage costs for goods to go from wherever they are manufactured in Scotland to Felixstowe, usually, because, from a shipowner's point of view, it is cheaper to steam his vessel into Felixstowe--it has nothing to do with the dockers who work at Felixstowe or at Grangemouth but everything to do with steaming costs--than to steam his vessel into Grangemouth. It is cheaper for him to pay the road haulage costs to take the goods to the vessel rather than to bring the vessel to the goods.
The effect that that has had on the Scottish economy ought not to be under- estimated. Until about eight years ago, 75 per cent. of all the goods manufactured in Scotland for export went out through Scottish ports. Nothing has changed, except that only 23 per cent. of the goods manufactured in Scotland for export now go through Scottish ports. The rest go down to Felixstowe because of the grid system, or the cross- subsidisation that is employed by shipowners. The Government will do nothing about it. The shipowners will eventually close the Scottish ports. The national dock labour scheme will not close them. That is why the Bill is such nonsense. It does not even begin to tackle the root of the problem.
After the shipowners have closed the Scottish ports, the cross- subsidisation will be withdrawn and the cost of taking goods from Scotland for export will be enormously increased. That is why one of our main industries, the Scotch whisky industry, is already taking steps to ensure that it does not fall into the trap that is being set for it by the shipowners. The industry is making arrangements--all credit to it--to construct a terminal so that it can export Scotch whisky from Scottish ports. As soon as Scottish shipowners succeed in closing the Scottish ports, the grid system will come to an end and cross-subsidisation will be withdrawn. There will then be an enormous increase in the cost of our exports. The Minister tells us that the Bill is crucial. It is so crucial that it did not form part of the Gracious Speech or of the Conservative party's 1987 election manifesto, only two years ago. It did not need to be introduced at this time without discussion. The Minister does not want discussions. He does not want the port employers and the union to get together, let alone to speak to the unions. The Bill is about confrontation. That is what the Government have wanted since the middle of last week when the announcement was made.
The Bill has nothing to do with 1992 and the free market. If that is what it is supposed to be, it shows a complete failure to understand the nature of that free market. The Minister talks about the need to make our ports competitive for 1992. Why, then, did the Minister for Roads and Traffic come to the Dispatch Box some months ago and boast that this country has not taken a penny piece from the EEC regional development fund for transport to prepare our transport system for 1992? The French Government have taken 48 per cent. of all their rail network investment from the EEC regional fund to construct a brand new rail network to get their goods to their ports in 1992. The Bill has nothing to do with 1992 and everything to do with destroying the rights of the workers. I shall not go into the Lobby this evening happily, but with great regret
Column 85that it is necessary to oppose a measure designed to take dockers and the industry in which they work back to the Victorian age. 8.10 pm
Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham) : I am glad to have the opportunity to correct the record so eloquently distorted by the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing). I remind the House that the Labour party, which is supposed to care so passionately about the Bill, is represented in the Chamber by only about a dozen supporters. A few more were present earlier, but only a handful. That exposes the myth that the Labour party is doing its utmost to support the dockers outside. The hon. Member for Falkirk, East is distorting history and doing himself a disservice by suggesting that the bad behaviour has been on the Conservative Benches given that earlier there was a tremendous amount of raucous noise from the Opposition, who sought to howl down my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Mr. Speaker himself suggested that the noise was coming from both sides of the House.
I certainly have no interest--I am not trying to be pious--in embarrassing the Labour party ; it is sufficiently embarrassed already on this issue. We have no interest in trying to make Labour Front Bench spokesmen look even more uncertain about their position. We have no interest, either, in embarrassing the leadership of the TGWU. We certainly have no interest in a strike. That is the first and significant point that I shall make.
We have heard a great deal of nonsense from the Opposition. Let us be sensible for a moment. A strike will do a lot of damage to the docks. It will do a great deal of damage to the industry that we seek to support, to the customers, and the companies and to employees throughout the dock industry. It would certainly damage the union. It will do much damage to the Opposition, who will be in a difficult position, and to the Government. Strikes damage the country, Governments and everyone else. We have no interest in a strike and there is no need or justification for a strike.
I share the views expressed by many Opposition Members and endorsed by Conservative Members that nobody in his right mind wants a return to the sort of casual labour system that, as we all recognise even if we did not personally experience it, was an utterly intolerable feature of the immediate post-war period. The scheme was introduced as a means of disposing of casual labour. Opposition and Conservative Members alike understand that the world has changed dramatically. It is a totally different world--highly capital-intensive with totally new techniques--and employers need a highly skilled professional labour force. There is no way that one could run the business on a casual basis. A representative of the National Association of Port Employers said :
"Over the coming weeks and months, I have no doubt that employers in each of the ports will be sitting down with their employees to discuss working arrangements which will enable them to realise the full potential of their port following removal of the Scheme and the extra competitiveness it will give the industry."
The same press release says :
"We will not be returning to systems of casual employment, nor any variant of it."
When the scheme goes, and before any legislation is passed, there should be negotiations between different employers and their work forces on new contracts of
Column 86employment. That is the constructive way forward. The House has to make a decision about the abolition of the dock labour scheme. That is our decision. It has been made absolutely clear that the new contracts of employment will mean a guarantee that there will be no return to casual employment, and it is up to the employers and employees to negotiate that position.
Opposition Members ask why we are abolishing the scheme in this way. One might say that it has been done rapidly but, equally, many Conservative Members would say that it is 10 years too late. From the debate so far, it has been painfully clear that we are faced with a simple proposition. The unions have made it clear that they are not prepared to negotiate about the abolition of the scheme. The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) has made it clear that the unions are not prepared to negotiate about the abolition of the scheme independently of discussions about the future of the port industry. Let us not be naive about it : Opposition Members know, and we know, that the simple issue is the abolition of the scheme itself. There is little room to negotiate on that. There may be plenty of room for negotiations between employers and employees about different contracts of employment ; so be it. We have a very simple proposition with very little scope for negotiating about the scheme itself, given the attitude of the trade unions.
Is it better to make an announcement and take six months of negotiation about something that is clearly understood by hon. Members and have six months of dispute, with threats hanging over the industry? Is it not better to deal with the matter quickly and cleanly and thus get both sides facing the key issue? The position that the Government have adoped is helpful to the industry, to the unions and to everybody. It means that a clear-cut decision will be taken rapidly. Is it not easier for Opposition Members to make up their minds about their position on a short time scale, rather than in a long drawn-out process of torture over many months ahead? The hon. Member for Falkirk, East referred to the dock workers of Liverpool. Those of us in the south of England watched the port of London being destroyed by the dock labour scheme. The same was also largely true of Liverpool. The dock labour scheme has done more to destroy jobs in Liverpool, London and other ports than almost any other single factor. Those of us who are concerned about having a thriving port industry, preserving jobs, encouraging new investment and recapturing some of the trade lost to Europe say that we should end the scheme. We are the ones who are concerned about protecting jobs.
The Government's method of handling the Bill rapidly is for the good of the industry and is not provocative. We have no interest whatever in a dock strike, and I hope passionately that it will be avoided. The abolition of the scheme will generate a great deal more in investment and will be good for dockers' jobs in the future. Finally, I have a story that might please the Opposition and might seem to make the Government's position more difficult. I represent a constituency which contains an immensely successful scheme port that has grown from virtually nothing 25 years ago to become Britain's sixth largest port in non-oil tonnage. It is a success story and I pay tribute to the management and to the registered dock workers who have helped achieve it. It was virtually a green field site and it is now the Medway port authority,
Column 87operating from the port of Sheerness. But its growth could have been greater and will be dramatically greater when the restrictions are removed. The port is in the south-east of England, it has superb deep water, it is strategically located for the continent and has many investment attractions.
When the restrictions are removed, there will be increased incentives for new employers to take on much of the work that has not yet moved to the dockside, including much value-added work that could be done there instead of further inland. That has been deterred by the scheme and I have no hesitation whatsoever in forecasting that, in two or three years' time, the Labour party will have forgotten all about the scheme. The dockers concerned will be more confident, more highly paid and more optimistic about the future. The ending of the dock labour scheme is long overdue and its removal will add greatly to the prospect of extra industrial investment on the waterfront. The Labour party proclaims that it is fighting for 9,400 registered dock workers, although it is not fighting very strongly. It is trying to retain privileges that are not enjoyed by other people working in the docks. There must be about 100,000 people directly and indirectly empoloyed in the docks in this country. Why is the Labour party fighting for the privileges of the few and neglecting the injustices that are thereby done to the many?
Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) : I am not a natural friend of monopolies of any kind, but I believe that the Government are absolutely wrong to abolish in such a fashion a scheme that has served the industry well. First, it has allowed a managed rundown of the labour force in the docks and an essential transition to change in which the workers have co- operated because they have had confidence given by the scheme. Secondly, the scheme has provided good industrial relations in the docks. The days lost in strike per employee in the docks in 1987 were half the average for workers in transport generally. The third and most important effect of the scheme has been to put working people on a more equal basis with capital. That is why the Government do not like it. It has given the workers a say in their jobs and in the way in which the industry is run, and has placed emphasis on training, which is vital in the docks and which the management wish to cut back because they do not want to spend money. For all those reasons, it has been a good scheme and it is particularly wrong to abolish it in such a fashion, without consultation and at great speed.
The arguments adduced against the scheme are largely irrelevant. The scheme is not the major problem in the docks. There are two major problems affecting docks in Britain. First, the Government do not have a policy for docks but have allowed and encouraged a proliferation of small cowboy ports around the country, many of them on the Humber. That is in total contrast to what has happened on the continent, where there has been a concentration on big, well-invested and highly capitalised ports, with a skilled and secure labour force often in shemes like this, which has led to a concentration of industry in ports such as Rotterdam, Le Havre, and
Column 88Hamburg. We cannot equal that because we are developing a small, cut-price, cowboy industry, scattered in smaller ports around the country.
Secondly, the Government have not provided the support and backing to finance the ports and allow them to compete effectively. It is all very well to talk about abolishing the dock labour scheme and to make it the bogeyman, but the Government do not support the ports by financing the light dues, the pilotage, the Customs and the subsidies which are provided on the continent and which are particularly important to the fishing industry. I have visited continental ports and observed their fishing industry. Our fishing industry, particularly in Grimsby, has to pay quite heavy charges to ABP. On the continent, the ports are provided, almost in the way the roads are provided, as a form of municipal service or Government finance for the industry. Continental ports receive hidden financial support, so our fishing industry cannot compete with them, whatever the costs of landing the fish.
The arguments for abolishing the scheme do not add up. They have been totally distorted to focus everything on one hate object--the dock labour scheme. That is sanctioning an entirely unacceptable approach. The arguments in the White Paper are intellectually shoddy. It is monstrous that the White Paper uses arguments from a piece of research financed by the employers in the docks, claiming that abolition would create 50,000 jobs. That paper was specifically prepared for the employers and suits their interests, but it was presented almost as scientific evidence in the White Paper. That is a measure of the intellectual shoddiness of the Government's argument. More important is the Government's total failure to consult. It is all very well for the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) to argue that the TGWU said that it would not consult on the abolition of the scheme, but in negotiations one cannot expect one side to give away its case before entering the negotiations. The union will negotiate only on the ports and docks in general, and the Government themselves have refused to have any consultation on the wider issues. It is ridiculous for the Government then to say that Parliament must take precedence over negotiations. The Government are using Parliament as a legislative rubber stamp and the baying Conservative Back Benchers will troop through the Lobby in favour of an argument that they do not understand and vote for the Bill and then claim that it is not a matter for consultation. That is elective dictatorship in action--an elective dictatorship based on 42 per cent. of the vote.
There is a total contrast between the way, in which the Government are operating with regard to the dock labour scheme and what they are doing about the national barrister labour scheme, which will provide riches for life for a small bunch of financially motivated men and woman--5,000 all told. As soon as a posse of geriatric militants in a fit of senile dementia threaten to throw themselves under the wheels of the stagecoach as it drives to the jubilee next month, the Government immediately announce that they will extend the consultation period and trail the fact that there will be a softening of Government proposals.
The only logical explanation for that contrast is that the Government want a dock strike to conceal the disastrous mess that has already been made in the trade figures and the further rise in interest rates that is yet to come. It is like a repeat of "Beyond the Fringe"--"At this stage in the
Column 89class war, we need a futile gesture--let us provoke a strike and make the dockers the bogeyman." The Government want a hate object.
The Government are in such a mess that they would like the trade figures obscured by a dock strike, but I hope that there will not be one. The dockers' leaders have acted very wisely in taking a proper legal approach on consultation and negotiation with the employers. I hope that the employers will negotiate seriously. They have a responsibility to negotiate on terms and conditions, the nature of the employment, the numbers and the manning levels when the scheme has ended. That is why the Government should delay the Bill until those consultations are concluded.
Finally, I wish to deal briefly with fish landings. There has been a particular problem in Grimsby, where there has been a decline in the fishing industry, not due to the lumpers being obliged to be dock workers, but to the shift of the fishing industry to Scotland and the decline in catches. There are 44 lumpers who are registered dock workers landing fish in Grimsby. There are not sufficient workers for the peaks of landings. There are too few for continuity and for the troughs of landings. That has been made worse by the Grimsby Fishing Vessel Owners, who have detoured landings elsewhere to other ports and taken legal action against the dock labour scheme to give themselves more latitude.
Those factors are understandable in some respects, but they have hardened the resistance of the lumpers in maintaining their conditions and not moving to productivity pay. They want a regular guaranteed income because the owners are detouring landings elsewhere and cutting the amount of fish that is handled by the lumpers. It is an inevitable human reaction. The lumpers have now voted, as the Government have cited, to get out of the scheme because they want to earn more by being outside the scheme. What the Government do not tell us--this presupposes the bankruptcy of the landing company--is that they want severance pay. It is thus possible as a tactical manoeuvre for the landing company, which is trading at a loss, to go bankrupt after the scheme has been abolished and the lumpers will not be reallocated to the register but will qualify for redundancy pay under the legislation.
That raises the question how they will be replaced. This is where the employers' argument that there will be no casual labour falls down. The Grimsby Fishing Vessel Owners have long wanted casual labour on a daily basis, and the dockers have allowed supplementary labour on a weekly basis. In Grimsby we really need a hard core of professional landers, who are highly paid and hard working, with some casual supplement. The owners seem to want an entirely casual landing force. I should like a guarantee that there will be no casual labour--the Government have echoed this today--to be extended to fish landing. Does it or does it not cover fish landing? That is what we want to know in Grimsby.
This situation could arise only in a class-divided country such as this where each side sees the other as its main problem. The employers want to cut expenditure on training and wages and cut down the labour force in the
Column 90docks. That is no triumph for the industry-- because the employers are seeking to triumph over their own workers. As a result--and the same will now happen in the docks--the 1980s have been the decade when management, employers and owners have triumphed over their own workers and lost out to the Germans and the Japanese.
Mr. Michael Irvine (Ipswich) : The hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing) spent much of his speech bemoaning the fact that goods are being taken to the south of England and shipped out to the continent through Felixstowe. I can tell the hon. Gentleman quite a bit about Felixstowe. It is a massive port just down the river from my constituency. Indeed a quarter of its work force lives in Ipswich. Its growth has been spectacular by any standards. A mere 30 years ago it was a totally insignificant port. By 1970, it was handling 2.25 million tonnes of cargo a year, by 1985 it was handling more than 10 million tonnes, and last year it handled 15,420,000 tonnes. Geography and its proximity to Europe has played a part in its success, but it is not just that. I should like the hon. Member for Falkirk, East to consider why, when goods are taken south from Scotland, they go not to Tilbury, Southampton or other ports which have equal geographical advantages, but to Felixstowe. The key to the port's success has been that it has not been encumbered by the burden of restrictions, higher costs and poor industrial relations of the ports operating the national dock labour scheme.
I have a particular constituency interest in the Bill because not merely does a quarter of the work force of Felixstowe--the major non-scheme port-- live in my constituency, but at the heart of my constituency is the port of Ipswich, which is a major container port in its own right and a scheme port. Ipswich provides a very interesting comparison. It too has expanded and prospered, although not to the same extent as Felixstowe.
It is not just geography that has helped Ipswich but the proximity of Felixstowe itself. The Ipswich dockers know that if the speed with which they turn round their ships compares too unfavourably with the dockers at Felixstowe, they will lose trade to Felixstowe. That has spurred Ipswich, under the able leadership of its chief executive John Evelyn, to become one of the most efficient and successful of the scheme ports.
The point--it is similar to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate)--is that, although Ipswich has been relatively successful, it has prospered despite the dock labour scheme. Absurdities such as ghosting and bobbing, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Boothferry (Mr. Davis), have held it back and prevented it from being more successful still. Other scheme ports with less favourable geographical positions and industrial relations, and without the competitive stimulus of the proximity of a highly successful non-scheme port, have suffered disastrous declines. The damage done by the dock labour scheme has been not merely to the scheme ports and their work forces but to the areas around them. It has held back the growth of ancillary services and industries which would have been drawn to a successful and expanding port. All too often