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Column 91the scheme has produced an industrial wasteland around ports and compounded the economic difficulties of the towns and cities in which scheme ports are situated.
The damage goes deeper still because, through its inefficiencies and extra costs, the scheme imposes a levy on the consumer. It forces up the price of everything that comes through scheme ports, from food to cars.
Perhaps still more important is the damaging effect the scheme has upon our export trade. British exporters are hit twice. When they import raw materials, components or other intermediate goods through the scheme ports, they have to pay extra. When they import capital equipment through the scheme ports to improve their productivity, that pushes up costs too. They are hit yet again when they export through scheme ports. The scheme acts as a levy upon our consumers and a double levy upon our exporting firms.
The termination of the dock labour scheme will bring benefits all round. It will reduce costs, help our exporters and regenerate decayed and depressed areas around many of our scheme ports. Above all, it will enable managers to manage effectively.
The non-scheme ports have, in many respects, the best record of security of employment for their employees. For example, I give the employment record of the port of Felixstowe. In 1959 it employed just over 200 workers ; by 1970 it employed 686 ; by 1980 it employed 1, 340 and this year it is employing 2,030. That does not take full account of the extra employment and prosperity which the success of that port has generated around it.
The abolition of the dock labour scheme will bring benefits to consumers, exporters and the country as a whole and, in the long run, to the people who work in the ports.
Mr. Jim Sillars (Glasgow, Govan) : I listened with fascination to the Secretary of State. He told us the scheme was an abominable practice and something that everyone concerned with efficiency and the good of the country abhorred. If that is what he thinks--it is not what I think--why have the Government waited 10 years to act and why are they acting now? Why are we getting precipitate action now? Two or three weeks ago, it was evident that, if the Government took precipitate action, there would be a fairly strong reaction from the dockers, given their history and their anxiety about casualisation. There was bound to be a risk of someone in the Transport and General Workers Union saying, "We shall have to strike against this measure." In those circumstances, it would have been sensible to include these propositions in a Green Paper to forewarn people of the Government's thinking and to engage in negotiations.
The argument advanced by the Secretary of State that he cannot negotiate with the union because it has taken a hard line until now is nonsense. Anyone who has been a Minister in the Department of Employment, given its knowledge and history, knows that it is perfectly reasonable to take a hard line before negotiating. The Government could have said that they intended to abolish the scheme and then entered into negotiations.
Column 92Dock workers in my constituency are extremely bitter about what is happening to them and their colleagues throughout the United Kingdom. They feel that they are being set up by the Government. They are extremely bitter about the accusations of inefficiency and of being a Luddite group who must be removed to advance the greater good of the community. Ministers and Tory Back Benchers run around the country preaching the success of the British economy. According to the White Paper, 60 per cent. of national income is accounted for by trade and 40 of the 75 ports that deal with that trade are scheme ports. It does not appear that the scheme has been a major impediment to the Government's successful economic policy.
Dockers in my constituency believe that the problem is that the flow of trade has been much too effficient. In their view, which I share, the true reason for precipitate action is that the Government are running into deep economic trouble. The fundamentals of the economy in 1989 are not terribly different from 1979. The inflation problem cannot be tackled adequately ; the balance of payments deficit is running at historically high levels ; the level of the pound and its management remain beyond the ability of the Chancellor and the Treasury ; and unemployment remains a serious factor. Employers and economists from brokers in the City of London are saying that unemployment must rise to maintain balanced management of the economy.
It was noticeable this afternoon, when the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) suggested negotiations, that the Secretary of State took refuge in the fiction that the Bill is before Parliament. The hard fact of life is that the House is controlled by the Tory Government. There would be no problem if they wanted to withdraw or suspend the Bill and negotiate with the Transport and General Workers Union.
Like other hon. Members, I believe that the reason for the precipitate action is that the Government want a strike. The hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing) said that the Secretary of State does not want a strike. That may be true, but the lady in Downing street wants a strike. Last Tuesday, I listened carefully when the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) asked her about negotiations. In a dull Question Time, that was the moment when she came to light and became agitated and excited. She made it plain that negotiations were not on. She was for abolition and provocative action. It was evident from her body language and vibes that she wants a strike.
On 14 March 1989, the Government were saying, in a reply given by an Under- Secretary of State, that there was no intention of abolishing the scheme. On 20 March, a Green Paper was produced, "Removing barriers to Employment" concerned with "Barriers to Economic Efficiency", which dealt with 2.6 million people who are in the closed shop. If 2.6 million people in the closed shop are a substantial barrier to efficiency and industry, and the Government thought it sensible to act, but also to have a Green Paper and consultation, why are they jumping in with this Bill, which affects 9,000 dockers? There is no comparison between 9,000 and 2.6 million people, given that the Government argue that they are concerned mainly with economic efficiency. The Government are engineering what they hoped would be a strike and are playing political football with the lives of ordinary working men and their families for the sake of trying to wrong-foot the trade union movement and the Labour party.
Column 93The tragedy of the Government may seem manifest to many people today. There is substantial poverty and deprivation and a widening gap between rich and poor. Their final legacy will bring a much more sorrowful harvest, especially for business interests that have supported the Government in their advocacy and promotion of the ideology that market forces are all that matter. Currently, there is no doubt that casualisation is widespread. Part-time work is widespread, and scandalously low wages are being paid to young people, who are being abused. If there is a plentiful supply of labour and human beings are treated like any other commodity, under the market forces philosophy they can be exploited and abused.
That is no way to approach the problems of the 21st century. Western Europe is moving away from the metal-bashing era and entering one in which we shall have to use our minds and intellects to produce the services and products that will earn our living in the world. How we treat human beings- -as living flesh and blood with ideas and concepts of fairness and justice- -and whether we are prepared to enter a period of co-operation between people who employ and those who work will be determining factors in whether any part of the United Kingdom succeeds in the 21st century.
The Government are laying down the economic law of Milton Friedman and Professor Hayek ; market forces alone matter. The Government must beware of the demographic factors of the next 20 or 30 years. If the Government's lesson to the working people is that they shall live by market forces, I am sorry, but so be it. As demographic factors change, the boot will move from the employers' foot to the workers' foot. There will be a shortage of young and skilled workers and the Government will beg middle-aged workers whom they have thrown on the scrap heap to return to work. If the Government treat us the way that they have for the past 10 years, and the way in which they want to for the next 10 years, and today they get their Bill, and they will insist on having their way in the market place at our expense. This is their day, but our day is coming.
My constituency has the largest port in the United
Kingdom--Tilbury--which has 1,054 registered dockers, probably the largest number of registered dockers in a single constituency. At the moment, those thousand men and their families are reflecting on the watershed which their industry is about to reach. They are reflecting on whether they may be asked to strike and, I hope, on whether they will take strike action which will undermine their long-term job security, or whether they will ignore the rantings of their Marxist shop stewards and the nonsensical advice given by Opposition Members, and go to work.
Those men may be confused. Certainly those who vote to strike will be confused about whether the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) and his party will support them. If a substantial number of dockers in Tilbury vote against strike action, wish to carry on working, and come to me as their local Member of
Column 94Parliament, they will have my support. If need be, I shall lead them across the picket line at Tilbury to ensure their right to work and to protect their jobs and the viability of Tilbury in the long term.
It has been mentioned in the debate that there has been investment in the docks, irrespective of the scheme. Yes, £8 million has been invested in the port of London but that is nowhere near enough and nowhere near as much as would have been invested if so much money had not been wasted on the overmanning in the ports, causing them to become uncompetitive. Tilbury suffers greatly from that--and it has totally undermined its position and its ability to compete against ports such as Rotterdam. That is why many customers have left and gone to Rotterdam.
The dock labour scheme hangs like a black cloud over Tilbury, where unemployment is double that of the rest of my constituency. The scheme completely prevents the port from becoming a viable job creation area.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) mentioned earlier, process work has been driven away. Instead of timber, which comes through the port of Tilbury, being turned into window frames and chairs at the dock, it is transported across the country to be turned into those products elsewhere because manufacturers do not want registered dock workers doing the work.
There was a recent specific example of a company that wished to locate a fresh fruit cold store at the port of Tilbury. The company wanted its own vessels to come in, the product to be unloaded and put in a cold store in Tilbury docks. However, the unions said there was no way that this would be allowed, unless the registered dock workers could then load the fresh fruit on to lorries to transport it to the company's customers in the United Kingdom. That job creation opportunity in Tilbury was lost and there are scores of other examples of that happening in the past.
Tonight we have also heard about jobs being lost in locations adjacent to the port. That is happening in the development area of Thurrock park, immediately adjacent to the docks. In a letter to me of 16 February, Graham Hall, property director of Port of London Properties, said under a sub- heading "Industrial Development" : "One of the major difficulties that we have encountered is a resistance from many industrialists due to the continued presecence of the Dock Labour Scheme. There is an undoubted reluctance to establish premises close to the Port of Tilbury due to fears that work might be claimed by registered' dock workers. This factor can inhibit the range of uses that can be accommodated at Thurrock Park and also affect resale value of premises once built."
At Tilbury, ghosting and bobbing has been formalised. The management have to send home as many as 100 men a day because there is no work for them in the port. It is absolutely ridiculous for Opposition Members to suppose that any business can function or be efficient and profitable in such an environment. Not only are as many as 100 men sent home every day by the management, but many others spend the day carrying out activities, merely because they are present at the premises. Instead of the many sheds in the traditional cargo areas being swept once a week, they are swept endlessly every day. One can imagine how debilitating and demoralising that must be for the workers in that port.
Why do supporters of the trade union movement and the Socialist party, and members of the Socialist party support a mechanism and scheme which is completely elitist? No other working man or woman in the country
Column 95has a job for life. Nor would they want such a scheme if they understood the ramifications of it and the effect that it has had on employment levels in the dock industry.
The Labour party will support strike action against the employers if there is a strike in the docks, but there is no professional party hack labour scheme being run at Labour party headquarters. Redundancy notices are not unknown at Walworth road. There are no jobs for life in the Labour party's headquarters, yet the party expects employers in the dock industry to run a jobs-for-life scheme. It is typical for the Labour party to be hypocritical and expect employers to employ under a scheme which they would never wish to prevail over themselves at Walworth road.
Labour party Members are hypocritical in presenting one face to the general public--saying that they would not restore the scheme if they formed another Government--while, to their paymasters in the trade union movement, they say that they will support strike action to retain the very scheme that they will not restore. The Labour party wants strike action, and wants to undermine the competitiveness of British ports and, therefore, the performance of the British economy. If a strike becomes a likely possibility, the Labour party and not the Conservative party will have fuelled the dispute.
The slogan of the new revisionist Labour party is "Meet the Challenge, Make the Change". The challenge here is whether, after repeated attempts to negotiate it away, the Government should end this absurd, outdated scheme and create positive change in the ports. The obvious answer is yes. However, as ever, the Opposition, in their normal cretinous and spineless way, shy away from supporting what is right.
The scheme is bad for Tilbury and, therefore, for Thurrock. It is bad for British ports and, therefore, for the British economy. It is bad for Great Britain and its abolition cannot come soon enough. Therefore, I shall vote with the Government tonight on behalf of my 1,000- plus registered dock workers.
Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East) : I cannot think of a worse way to conduct industrial relations than this Bill, which is a textbook example of how not to act if the Government want harmony and industrial peace. However, do they? My only explanation for their action is that they are thirsting for, and intent on provoking, a strike, in order that the union's funds will be sequestrated by the courts.
On any other matter there would have been extensive consultations and a Green Paper. However, we were faced with a brutal announcement and a simultaneous White Paper, with the First Reading of the Bill the next day and an immediate Second Reading. Why has there been such indecent haste and why such a stampede? What is the emergency? After all, we are dealing with men's livelihoods and a vital industry. The men are not enemy aliens but our own people, and citizens who have given a lifetime of service to their industry. What a difference between the way they have been treated and the way in which the lawyers and judges have been treated.
Do the Government really want to celebrate the centenery of the great dock strike of 1889 by provoking
Column 96another? I should have thought that Conservatives would have a sense of history. In that year, the dockers, without a union, worked and lived in pitiable conditions which almost defy description. They struck for 6d an hour--what John Burns called the
"full round orb of the docker's tanner"
and for 8d an hour overtime, and for a minimum of four hours a call, to give them 2s with which to feed, clothe and house their families. The strike lasted from 14 August to 18 September, and, with great public support, the dockers won their demands and formed their union.
This was four generations ago. Before Conservative Members snigger, they should remember that these memories remain strong in the docks communities. Until modern times, dock workers still had to endure and suffer the casual system under which men were hired and fired by the day by corrupt gangmasters who picked and chose the men. The men were treated without dignity in degrading circumstances, and fought each other like animals for work. All this is vividly remembered in the dock communities.
With the second world war came some enlightenment. The men were needed and their leader was Ernest Bevin, then known as the dockers' KC. He was brought into the war Cabinet by Winston Churchill as Minister of Labour and National Service. After the war, in the new Britain that our people had fought for, things were to be different. In 1946 and 1966, by Acts of statesmanship, progress and civilisation, the dock labour scheme was brought in to deal with the evil of casualisation and to introduce basic human rights at work. Since then, it has served us well.
Forty years after the introduction of the legislation, there is no reason why it should not be examined again, but it should be reviewed by negotiation, not diktat. Negotiations were offered tonight, but the offer was durned down.
I want to discuss some of the myths and stories that are being put about-- first, the story that the dock labour scheme is bringing the ports to their knees. The largest employer is Associated British Ports. It made profits of £38 million in 1987, an increase of 46 per cent. on the previous year. In the first half of 1988 its profits increased by a further 59 per cent. The Mersey Docks and Harbour Company's profits increased by 80 per cent. in 1987 over those of 1986. I see no great disaster there.
We have already heard about the cost burdens borne by British, compared with continental, ports. Other European countries have similar schemes, not a free-for-all. They also have job security arrangements, so this cannot be the reason for the disparity. Continental ports enjoy advantages because they are directly linked to the continent's transport infrastructure and they receive large subsidies from national and regional Governments. As we have heard, British shippers have to pay for lighthouse dues, pilotage and customer services, which are all onerous burdens. On the continent, these services are entirely free. We also have to pay for the costs of dredging and so on, unlike on the continent.
Another story put around is that there is a great surplus of labour. In 1987, of the 10,274 registered dock workers, an average of 8,717 were available for work on any day, and 8,009 were required on average. So the surplus runs in hundreds for the entire country, and the number has been reduced with every passing year.
The facts show that this is a pretended problem. There is no such thing as lifetime employment--40,000 jobs have
Column 97been lost. When the Select Committee visited Japan, we wanted to discover why the workers there were so co-operative when the employers introduced new technology. I was told that the secret was that Japanese companies offered lifetime employment. I said that I did not think that that idea would go down very well in the United Kingdom, but the diplomat who was with me told me that many people at home had lifetime employment--he had it, the civil service had it, the military had it and the judges had it. But the dock labour scheme does not give lifetime employment.
Industrial relations are important in this debate. In 1987, 0.64 days per person were lost through industrial disputes--just over half a day per person per year, which is better than many other industries. That means that the scheme has proved its worth ; it is a price worth paying for good industrial relations.
The scheme has also facilitated a huge increase in productivity. The tonnage handled per person trebled between 1973 and 1987, and increased by 50 per cent. between 1983 and 1987 alone. Job security enlists the co- operation of the work force and leads to a huge increase in productivity.
We hear stories of excessive wages. In 1987, the average rate of pay for registered dock workers was £6.88 an hour, including overtime, bonuses and shift pay. The average hourly rate of pay for full-time males in Britain is £5.33, which is not an awful lot different. The scheme has brought job stability which, in turn, has brought industrial peace and huge increases in productivity. How much better all this is than what preceded it in the awful days when men were hired and fired by the day.
The Government should take this squalid Bill away and end their paranoid hatred of the trade unions. It is distasteful to see the juvenile ideologues on the Conservative Benches with their hatred of British trade unions. Like every other western European country, we should work in partnership with the trade unions and stop provoking industrial strife and confrontation. We should sit down now and negotiate a review of the dock labour scheme. A strike would be a deliberately engineered self-inflicted wound. If it happens, the fault will lie entirely with the Government.
This debate has reflected the serious division of opinion between the two sides of the House. I declare an interest as a seaman of 10 years experience--albeit serving gin and tonic as one or two hon. Members have pointed out. In the course of that experience, I visited almost all the major scheme and non-scheme ports, which gave me some understanding of the difficulties in the 1960s and 1970s and of the seeds of the problems in the industry, which go back a very long way. Suspicion lies at the heart of the difficulties--the problem of whether employers or the Government can be believed.
Column 98There are some areas of agreement. We agree that this is an important industry--the White Paper spells that out. Scheme and non-scheme ports make a major contribution to our balance of trade, balance of payments, exports and imports. All that is highlighted in the White Paper. It also highlights the trade switch that has taken place in the economy. Hon. Members who talked about Manchester and other ports did not take into account the major change away from the west coast in favour of the east coast. Technology has played its part and has contributed to the loss of trade in Manchester. The canal was not wide enough to take the new ships, and there was a move away from trade with Canada and America to trade with Europe. We also recognise that our private and public ports are major public utilities. One of the first debates that I heard in the House was in 1971 on the Mersey docks and harbour board about which some of my hon. Friends spoke today and which was allowed to go bankrupt. The Government reconsidered their position and realised that the country needs major ports, scheme and non-scheme. I will deal with the subject of the Mersey docks and harbour board later because it set the scene for the whole approach and shows the difference in attitudes.
There has been a major problem in equating the capacity of our ports to the decline in trade. We have twice the capacity that is needed. How do we adjust the capacity to fit the trade? We all agree that it is out of balance and the argument is about cost differences. We have to go back some time to find the more contentious issues. It is said that everyone is against decasualisation, and that may be the case--if anything has died in the debate, it is the argument that somehow the scheme offered jobs for life. There have been many reductions in the labour force, which is now down to about 9,000. Decasualisation came about because of inquiries and regulations and a desire for more efficient utilisation of labour. The Secretary of State for Transport should look at all the inquiries. Dozens of them were set up by Tory Governments to look at the nature and operation of the port industry and of the scheme. There were six inquiries in the 1950s. There was the major Rochdale report and the Devlin report in the 1960s. There was the Jones-Aldington report and the report by the National Ports Council which reported in the 1970s. They all agreed that decasualisation should be ended within the maintenance of a national dock labour scheme. They said that everything should be within the framework of a ports strategy and that we should have a national ports authority.
The analysis has been clear from the 1950s and it has been said that the scheme should be retained. There has been a great deal of criticism of the scheme in the House. I looked at the record of the Secretary of State because we joined in debate about earlier transport legislation. I looked at the pamphlet which gave him the job. It was called "The Right Track" and described as
"A paper on Conservative Transport Policy by Norman Fowler." It is dated 1977, and in it he said :
"We agree with those in the ports industry who say that the immediate priority is one of stability."
That is correct. It goes on to say :
"As Philip Chappell, the retiring Chairman of the National Ports Council, has said : The real problem for the United Kingdom ports today is not what more to build, but to get real value and throughput out of what we have'."
Column 99For a number of reasons, a later expansion took part in our ports. First, the Minister's predecessor--the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley)--did away with capital controls in the name of greater competition. That led to a massive expansion, but also to problems because we had excessive capacity in some of our major traditional ports. At the same time, it increased the problems in the scheme ports. There was also expansion in the non-scheme ports. I shall return to that as it is a major economic issue.
When the Secretary of State first took office he wrote an article in The Port in which he said :
"Fowler's message--Do it Yourself".
At the annual luncheon of the National Association of Port Employers he is reported to have said :
"What the Government does not want to do is interfere in the way you are running your businesses."
The Bill certainly does not mean that the Government will stay out of the affairs of the industry. The Bill means active intervention. Shortly after that, the Minister said that there would be no assistance and that matters would be left to the market. He then brought in the Port of London (Financial Assistance) Bill about which he said :
"Consequently, there has been a dramatic reduction in demand for labour in the ports. In London, for example, the number of registered dock workers has declined by over 70 per cent. since 1966--a fall from 25,000 to 6,500 in that period. I acknowledge the social and human impact that such a reduction involves, and I pay tribute to the co-operation that was necessary to secure it."--[ Official Report, 16 April 1980 ; Vol. 982, c. 1305.]
At that time the Secretary of State was spending a great deal of money to maintain the Port of London authority, which was on the verge of bankruptcy because it did not have enough resources. He wanted to assist the national dock labour scheme in the process of reducing labour and brought the Bill to the House. That was intervention. It may have been a financial port policy--it meant running around spending money.
As the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) said in that debate, the Government were simply throwing money at the problem. One of the consequences for our ports authorities is that they have had to secure major amounts of money by means of levies that have been a burden on the industry. We must bear that in mind when we take account of costs in the industry. Industry has its labour costs and the costs of capital.
We told the Secretary of State when he presented the Port of London (Financial Assistance) Bill that he could not simply throw money at the problem. The Secretary of State said that it was a one-off job and would apply only to London. We said that soon enough it would have to apply to Merseyside, and within 12 months he was along with another bag of money to deal with the problems on Merseyside. We told him in the House and in Committee that he would have to give money to the other ports. What he was doing was bidding up the amounts of redundancy. That was his programme. The employers told him that if he continued his policy he would place on them a financial burden that would cause grave problems in future, and that is precisely what began to happen.
The Secretary of State's successor, the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury, presented a Bill to cover every port. That Bill allowed for £450 million-plus
Column 100grants of £750 million. That burden was placed on the industry and the taxpayer because the Government had no ports policy and preferred to throw money at the problem--they did nothing to solve the problem, but they put people out of work. A ports policy could have been formulated for far less than the £750 million that the Government threw at the problem.
There is a feeling that the Government do not have a policy for the ports and that there is some sort of conspiracy between the employers and Government. The Minister said that national shippers support the Government's policy. Like most hon. Members, I received a statement today from the British Shippers Council. The statement made it clear that the shippers were against the dock labour board because they felt that the scheme was costly. I telegraphed the shippers this afternoon and asked, "Are you not concerned about the conference system that fixes the price for ships going from British ports? You face a penalty if you do not observe the conference line system." The spokesman for the shippers said, "We are against that." I asked "Are the costs not even greater?" and I was told, "Yes, they are." I asked, "Why are you not telling the Government to do something about the monopoly business of the shipping conference line system? The Secretary of State could do something about that if he was really interested in costs in the ports industry." But there was not a word from the shippers on that question. That, again, shows the identity of the employers with the owners.
The dockers do not believe the Government ; they do not trust them. All sorts of inquiries have recommended the retention of the national dock labour scheme, but the Government are not even prepared to set up an inquiry or to enter any kind of discussion. They just want to exercise their own prejudice because they think that the scheme is wrong. As one of my hon. Friends said about the television technicians, the Government feel it must be wrong because we can all see it, but when there is an analysis of the matter by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission the Government find their views rejected. That is why they did not dare to go to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission as they did with the television technicians. If it was a good idea to have an investigation into the television technicians, why is it not a good idea to have one for the dockers?
The evidence shows that the Secretary of State spends much time reading Lloyd's List. Perhaps it is his civil servants who do it and then give him quotes to read. The Morning Star also seems to be on his reading list. Why does he not pick up the telephone and talk to people, even if he does not like their views? He does not do that because the "Yes Ma'am" syndrome is at work. She told him to go out and do the job. She has told him that it does not matter what he said before. He should go out and do the job because she wants the dockers taken on because she is getting into an embarrassing economic situation. The economy is turning sour and the Prime Minister has said, "Is there a trade union body that we can begin to blame?" What other explanation can there be for the absence of discussions? The Government are taking away the rights of workers without any kind of discussion. They have never done that before--their intention has always either been placed in the manifesto or discussed with the workers concerned.
Let the Minister give one other example of where this has occurred. He was asked earlier for one, but no other
Column 101example has been given. All Governments of all political persuasions--until the present one--intended to do something about discussion and consultation, but that never occurred to the present Government. When Conservative Members worry about this being a conspiracy, perhaps they remember reading the pamphlet by the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury in 1978, when he said that what we have to do is use the power of the state to take on the miners, the dockers, and so on.
That is precisely what the right hon. Gentleman spelled out in 1978--the same Secretary of State who at a ports lunch in 1984 made it absolutely clear that he agreed with the employers' claim made at that lunch. Actually, I attended the lunch--free or not. The employers said then they wanted to get rid of the scheme, and subsequently he confirmed that view. That is what made the dockers extremely suspicious about what was going on. Shortly after that, the national dock strike took place. Why was that? In my area of Immingham there was a breach of the law-- [Interruption.] I remember the hon. Member for Immingham when he was the Member for Scunthorpe--he ran away from the constituency to find safer ground rather than fight the election. [Interruption.[ Let me deal with this point.
I remember what the hon. Gentleman did when it was declared that there was to be a national strike because in Immingham there was a breach of the scheme--he said very clearly that there had been no breach of the scheme, and so did the Secretary of State, but the inquiry and the court found within a week that there had been a breach of the scheme. It was a deliberate breach, as we have seen around the country in this conspiracy.
Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes) : As the hon. Member for Immingham, I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to a comment by Peter Broomhead, the union representative for Immingham : "Dockers will be unlikely to join a national strike to save the scheme and expect to find themselves on picket lines. We are union men, but I am sure that most men here will carry on working."
Mr. Prescott : That gentleman was giving his views, and no doubt he believed what he was saying, but I am sure that he agrees that the agreement was discussed with the employers first. He will also see what the employers' promises that there will be no difference and no decasualisation actually mean. If they mean nothing and he is to be replaced by part-time labour, he may well change his view. Part-time labour is an issue even on Humberside. The Secretary of State talks about Hull and Grimsby, and says that in fishing Hull has been more efficient than in Grimsby--Hull being non-scheme for its bobbers--but the reason for its being less costly is that it has part-time, casual labour. That is the point that we are trying to make. Part-time workers have no employment rights and there are no national insurance or tax payments. That means that a system can be run more cheaply, but it is a casual labour system, putting people on and off the dole. There is no justification for that.
What we have seen in this campaign is what I call the dirty dozen--the dozen or so Members on the Government side who have been running this campaign in parliamentary questions, debates, pamphlets and private Bills-- all of them seeking to get the Government to bring in the very legislation that they have introduced today.
Column 102This is a Government who deny any kind of review and provide no consultation--unlike their attitude to the judges, as has been pointed out today--a Government who provide no inquiry to justify restrictive practices. Legislation is being rushed through as a matter of national urgency, and it affects 9,000 employees. This is a coincidence of mounting economic problems. It is the good old Thatcherite tactic--when in trouble pick a fight with a trade union. That is what we are beginning to see. The Government narrow the debate to expressions of extreme prejudice-- "jobs for life", it is said, but the number has fallen from 80,000 to 9,000. Certainly no jobs are guaranteed for life. The facts show that that is not the case.
It is argued that the dockers support the scheme because it guarantees jobs for their sons. I had a considerable disagreement with my dockers in Hull because I thought it quite wrong that jobs should be guaranteed to sons in those circumstances. I think that jobs should be open. [Interruption.] Well, we had a public debate, and I told people in my area that I thought that the principle was wrong. It is a privilege that we see all too often among Conservative Members, and I am against it in those circumstances, too. The Secretary of State for Transport, who is to wind up for the Government, has the "Guinness" seat--I do not know what the official title is--and actually left university halfway through to take over the seat from his father, so I will take no lectures from the Secretary of State for Transport about sons taking fathers' jobs. In this debate there has been a lot of talk about bobbing, welting and ghosting. In the House of Commons it is called "pairing". If hon Members look at the record, they will see that I do not pair with any Tory. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame Elaine Kellett- Bowman) has just come in. The Government have a common pool system. Members record their votes but when the Government do not need so many workers--in this case, Members of Parliament--they are given the day off. It is called a bisque here. On the docks they call it ghosting and there is very little of it. Here, Members get their full pay--they can even go out and earn money from a second job. A docker cannot do that. When people in this House talk about bobbing, welting and ghosting, dockers regard that as having double standards.
It has been said in this debate that the system is an anachronism. Is it anachronistic to have a system which gives training far better than any other industry, welfare and an occupational medical health scheme far better than in any other industry, safety conditions and safety training far better than in any other industry, medical welfare, with doctors and nurses? Surely those and the conditions that we want all industries to have. Do not Conservative Members believe in levelling up rather than levelling down? I have heard those arguments from them for so many years, so why do we not level up to the safe standards, good medical provision and training that I have described? We cannot get that from the private sector, and one does not get it from the non-scheme sector either. Yet those are the conditions that the Government repaid as anachronistic.
What is the real difficulty? What is the dispute between us? What hon. Members opposite do not like is having working people participate in decision-making about their jobs, about redundancies, about the future of the industry.
Column 103That is what sticks in the craw. These rights are embodied in law. That sticks in the throat, too. When an employer want to exercise his right to get rid of people, he can be accused of not obeying the law. The Government do not like that either, so, as in the case of trade union legislation, they change the law and get the judges to carry out their philosophy.
Will dismissal be the same under the employment protection legislation that has been talked about? We know that of the many thousands of workers--the number is growing all the time--found to have been dismissed unfairly, only 4 per cent. are ever returned to their jobs. Will the right be the same in this case? In this case workers cannot be sacked easily. They cannot be dismissed without justification being given. Apparently, that is a point of complaint. There will be no rights under the unfair dismissal legislation. I wish to deal with another matter at the heart of this scheme. In the past few years many employers have been getting rid of trade union activists. They are quite prepared to be accused of unfair dismissal and to pay the pittance of compensation that is offered under the unfair dismissal legislation. That does not happen under the dock labour scheme. Is not the scheme about justice and the right to be treated fairly?
The real issue is cost. The Government say that the scheme costs £770 million. Most of those costs resulted from the Government's policy. They lent the money to pay for the redundancies and the necessary loans. In 1971, the Government intervened in the policy of the bankrupt Mersey docks and harbour board. The Secretary of State at the time said that the inefficiencies of that board were a result of the fact that the ship owners and the users of the port dominated the board, with two thirds control, and refused to increase prices. That led to a major problem and the collapse of the board. A private Member's Bill was introduced to help to return the savings of widows who had invested in what they thought was a good bet on a trusted port, but two hon. Members intervened to prevent such help--those two are now Secretaries of State for Employment and for Transport. They intervened to help the shareholders, but they would not intervene to help the interests of the employees. That is a matter of record and contrast.
The port of Hull has been mentioned today. I looked at the problems there in the 1970s when there were major strikes, and millions of tonnes of traffic were diverted from the Hull port down the river. That was because Hull used to deal with cargo from Rotterdam which was then transhipped in barges down the river. When the new container system came about, with major changes in technology and trade, the trade concentrated in Rotterdam and small ships picked up the cargo in Rotterdam and took it down the wharves. The Government now say that it is cheaper to go down the wharves. That is true, but the reasons should be examined. Hon. Members need not accept my word for it--they can look at the reports of the inquiry set up by the Government into the National Ports Council, which show that the capital costs of a major port having to provide for containerisation and major cargoes on big ships, and the whole range of facilities that are required in a modern port that a small wharf does not need, requires the big port to
Column 104spend three times as much capital as the small wharf against the earning assets. Therefore, they have a financial penalty and cannot charge the same prices.
In Hull, the British Transport docks board at that time adopted inflation accounting, which meant that it charged extra in a way that no private sector or non-scheme port could. It then decided to cut down the size of some of the ports and close some of the wharves in Hull. That is the reason for the heavy financial burden. Those are the reasons. Anybody making a choice between a traditional port and a wharf faced such problems.
The Touche Ross report looking into European ports, to which the Secretary of State referred, had an analysis showing that in European ports, the police, the rates and the infrastructure are carried. A later study by the National Westminster bank showed exactly the same. If we had the same way of financing, our charges would be 40 to 50 per cent. lower. That makes the labour cost pale into insignificance. The levy imposed on the industry to pay for medical assistance, training and running the system is approximately £4 million or 2.5 per cent. of the wage bill. The charge for maintaining and servicing the redundancy and financial package that the Government forced on the industry was £12 million or 7 per cent. of the wage bill--a burden three times as heavy as that of the labour scheme and not imposed on non-scheme ports.
Once again, in this Bill, the Government are to give more money--the same Government who constantly accuse us of wishing to throw money at problems. Here they are putting a financial straitjacket on the scheme ports and then asking us to compare their charges with those of the non-scheme ports and see how one is increasing at the expense of the other.
All these problems show that the dock labour scheme cannot be dealt with unless we look at the ports policy. Throwing money at the problem, as the Government have done, is not the way to deal with it. They have done nobody any favours--dockers or taxpayers. The Government have not looked at the problems of the ports or understood the differentials between small and large ports, whether they be capital or labour costs. They have not looked at the problem of how much port capacity we need. Those matters were spelled out five, 10 or 20 years ago in various reports on the industry. That is why we believe that the labour scheme has to be seen within a ports policy. The Government have been creating major financial problems for the industry, and have rejected a national ports authority.
When he came to his job, the Secretary of State proudly introduced a Bill to get rid of the National Ports Council, which had no teeth. He had already received a report from it saying that a national ports authority-- one body to deal with capital development in the industry--was necessary, but he rejected that advice. That is why our election manifesto made it clear--it was spelt out further in the "Fresh Directions" written by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes)--that we believe that a port and labour policy should be developed in an overall strategy for our ports to deal with excess capacity, greater safety and the differential in cost between Europe and ourselves. We also promised to
"review the operation of the Dock Labour Scheme."
We fought the general election on that policy because we believe that it is right.
The Government are using the power of the state to get rid of workers' rights. They are not just attacking the