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Column 105dockers. They introduced a Bill to abolish the wages councils, which affected millions of people in low-paid work. They reduced, and then got rid of, trade union rights at GCHQ. They vetoed the participation in decision-making that every other European country has under the Vredeling proposal. They want no rights for workers, and they have embarked upon a programme to reduce and then to eliminate those rights. They are using trade union legislation to achieve that.
The Bill has nothing to do with a ports policy or the national interest, and nothing to do with employment rights or justice for workers, but everything to do with the Government's economic record, which is not being exposed. It has everything to do with the political spite and prejudice of a Government determined to secure a strike. There has been no consultation. The Labour party will do all that it can to resist such an injustice. We believe that the Bill will be damaging to the ports industry and will bring a return to casual working. We shall resist the Bill, and we shall begin that resistance by voting against its Second Reading today.
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Paul Channon) : The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) began his speech by outlining the areas of agreement that exist between us, few though they may have turned out to be. I shall do the same before turning to the areas of disagreement that lie between us. I wish to say at the beginning of my remarks, however, that it is a pity that more hon. Members have not been able to contribute to the debate. The Front Bench replies could have started a little later. I am sorry that my hon. Friends the Members for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) and for Medway (Dame P. Fenner) tried to participate in the debate and did not have the chance to do so.-- [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says, "Keep them out." That is perfectly clear. That is what he said-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I recognise that you have just assumed the Chair and that you are rightly calling for order during the Secretary of State's speech. Those of us who entered the Chamber shortly after 9 o'clock heard the mass of interruptions that were created from a sedentary position by Conservative Members. We are waiting for fair play and nice manners.
I agree with the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East that the ports constitute a crucial and important industry. I welcome his support for the excellent pamphlet which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment produced in 1977, which was entitled, "The Right Track". I do not think that my right hon. Friend expected it to be commended so strongly by the hon. Gentleman. One of the most extraordinary assertions that I have heard from an Opposition spokesman for some time was when the hon. Gentleman accused my right hon.
Column 106Friend of committing the cardinal sin of throwing money at the ports industry. That is a curious charge for a Labour spokesman to make against one of my right hon. Friends.
The other curious accusation to be made against the Government is that the Bill has been rushed through. It is said that it has been rushed through after 10 years of Conservative Government. Many of my hon. Friends wish that it had been introduced far sooner. To say, after 10 years of Conservative government, that the Bill has been rushed through is to indulge in fantasy.
We have had a lively debate and I suspect that it will continue being lively. It has brought out many of the misconceptions of Opposition Members about the future of the ports industry once the scheme has been abolished. If, as has been argued, the retention of the scheme is vital for the future of the scheme ports and the dockers working in them, why is it that the non -scheme ports have all been doing so well? Why is it that the non-scheme ports have all enjoyed a significant expansion of trade while the scheme ports have seen their share of United Kingdom trade steadily declining? If the scheme is so important to the employment conditions of dockers, why is it that non-scheme ports have had no difficulty in recruiting an increasing number of dock workers, while the number of dockers in scheme ports continues to fall? I hope that I can make it clear during my speech, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment did in his speech, in company with many of my hon. Friends during the course of the debate, that if we are to consider seriously the future prosperity of our ports industry and of all the employees involved in it, it is essential that the scheme be abolished.
We have heard repeated claims from Opposition Members that abolition of the scheme will lead to a return to casualism. No hon. Member want to see a return to the 1930s or to the early post-war years when dockers were treated in the way that has been described. No hon. Member has argued for that, either tonight or earlier. We understand what the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) and other hon. Members have said this evening, but they have failed to explain why the abolition of the scheme would mean a return to those days. The truth is that it will not. On 6 April Sir Keith Stuart, the chairman of Associated British Ports, said :
"ABP does not intend to introduce a casual labour system". On 11 May Mr. Furlong, the managing director of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company-- another big employer of registered dock workers--stated :
"Whatever challenges and tests may face the Port of Liverpool after abolition, there will be no return to the casual employment from which the scheme originally sprang".
Mr. Leighton : Will the Secretary of State please tell the House why, after 10 years, there is the present stampede? Why was there a ministerial statement and a White Paper on the same day, with the First Reading on the following day and this immediate Second Reading? Can the Secretary of State see a difference between the treatment of the dockers and that given to that other closed shop of lawyers, for the reform of which there was a Green Paper,
Column 107a long period of consultation in which they may take industrial action and another four months of consultation? Why has there been no consultation on this Bill?
Mr. Channon : Now that the Government have come to this conclusion, which I hope will be supported by the House, it is in everybody's interests, whatever their job in the ports, be they registered dock workers or anything else, that the period of uncertainty should be ended as quickly as possible. It is only right that this Bill should have been brought forward and that it should proceed in the normal way following the appropriate interval and the announcement some time ago by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. It is only right that the Bill should proceed in an orderly way through the House. I am sure that that is in the interests of all concerned. To continue the point on casualism, on 13 April employers in ports representing over 90 per cent. of registered dock workers said that there would be no return to casual employment.
Mr. Sillars rose --
My hon. Friends the Members for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Woodcock) have shown how, over the past 20 years, scheme ports have seen a dramatic fall in their share of traffic. Non-oil traffic fell from 90 per cent. to 70 per cent. London used to handle 21 per cent. of non-oil traffic in 1970, but by 1987 that proportion had fallen to 13 per cent. Liverpool's share has been sliced from 11 per cent. to 3 per cent. whereas in contrast Felixstowe now handles seven times as much traffic as it did 20 years ago. It now handles
Mr. Channon : I shall give way later on, but I must get on. Felixstowe now handles 6 per cent. of the United Kingdom's traffic, compared with 1 per cent. in 1970. Felixstowe is by no means the only success story among the non-scheme ports. The private wharves of the Hull, Humber, Trent and Ouse have doubled their traffic in the past 10 years, despite the close proximity of the better situated, deep-sea ports of Hull, Grimsby and Immingham.
The small port of Neath which, unlike the rest of the ports in south Wales is outside the scheme, has seen a threefold increase in its non-oil traffic since 1975, whereas the other ports in the area, Cardiff, Newport, Swansea and Port Talbot all lost traffic in that period.
The whole House knows about the dramatic changes that have taken place at Dover, our No. 1 ferry port and a non-scheme port. It now handles 5 per cent. of the United Kingdom's non-oil traffic, by tonnage--a fivefold increase on 197-0. Of course, that is related to the success of the ro-ro ferries, but that level of growth in traffic would never have happened if Dover had been in the scheme. Further up the Kent coast, non-scheme Ramsgate has also benefited. It handled 1.6 million tonnes in 1987 whereas 20 years ago it handled only 50,000 tonnes. Again, that is evidence of the growth that can be achieved outside the dock labour scheme.
Mr. Loyden : Does the Secretary of State accept that the reason why non-scheme, deep-water ports are doing so well is that they are better located to serve the existing pattern of trade than are scheme ports? Does he not agree that ports such as Liverpool that were dependent on the American trade are now disadvantaged because of changing trade patterns that have nothing to do with scheme or non-scheme ports?
Mr. Channon : I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is right to draw attention to the shift of trade from the west coast to the east coast. However, there are non-scheme ports both on the west and the east coasts. If one takes them as a whole--and I cited a south Wales port a moment ago-- the growth of trade at the non-scheme ports as against scheme ports can clearly be seen. That is not a coincidence. I am sure that the House and people outside recognise that the dock labour scheme has been a major force in holding back the development of the scheme ports.
Mr. Harry Ewing: I am sorry to interrupt the flow of the right hon. Gentleman's speech but I must ask him a simple question. Both he and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment placed great emphasis on the word of the port employers that they will not return to using casual labour. Will the Secretary of State give a guarantee at the Dispatch Box that, if their word is broken, the Government will introduce legislation to take care of the situation?
Mr. Channon : I will not give that guarantee at the Dispatch Box, and nor would any right hon. or hon. Member expect me to do so. The House will have to form a judgment on the value of that particular assurance, which I personally believe to be extremely valid. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. After all, we can see how little casual work there is in the ports at present. The idea that this is some wicked plot to get rid of the dock labour scheme and to reintroduce casualisation by the back door is not borne out by the fact that there is so little casual work in dock labour scheme ports at present.
Mr. Channon : I want to address the crucial issue of what will happen to our ports--a point that was raised by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East in his speech. It is essential to carry on the policy in the ports industry, as in other fields of transport, of deregulation and of liberalisation, so that the ports may be in a position to operate as fully commercial enterprises in a competitive world. The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) spoke about marine pilotage and about light dues. We have undertaken a major reform of marine pilotage, sweeping away the old statutory regime and replacing it with a streamlined, cost- effective one. We pressed for greater cost-effectiveness in lights and navigational aids. This year, I announced the first major reform this century in the structure of light dues, including the ending of dues on deck cargoes and the reduction of light dues. They
Column 109were implemented from the beginning of this month as the latest step in a cumulative reduction in light dues over the past eight years amounting to over 40 per cent. in real terms.
Mr. Prescott : A number of my hon. Friends made the point that those charges, together with many others such as those for rates, police and infrastructure, are not carried by European ports, and that makes a difference of 50 per cent. between the costs of United Kingdom ports and those of Europe. All the Secretary of State has done is to impose those costs instead on shipowners or on the ports themselves.
The Bill is in accord with our approach to transport in general.
Mr. Channon : It is a vital piece of reform. The dock labour scheme has inhibited the release of the potential of far too many of our great ports. The scheme applies in the most part to the country's traditional main ports, many of which have a long history. It was no accident that they were sited where they are. They were built and developed to serve our main centres of industry and population, where the deepest or most sheltered waters were to be found, and major industries grew up alongside them. Many of them enjoy, through rail or road links, first-class communications with other parts of the country.
Hull, Immingham, Liverpool, Bristol, Ipswich are among many scheme ports whose prospects have been enhanced by improvements to the road network. If we cannot release the energy of those scheme ports so that they can expand and develop their full potential we are misusing, indeed wasting, a great national resource. We must give our scheme ports the same unrestricted freedom to compete, develop and expand as is enjoyed by those outside the scheme.
My hon. Friends the Members for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill) and for Hampshire, North-West (Sir D. Mitchell) described the handicaps that existed in the past, and are still in existence in the scheme ports. Last week the Leader of the Opposition claimed that scheme ports had had exactly the same increase in traffic as non-scheme ports, and a faster rate of growth. If the position is viewed over a short time span that may be possible, but what matters is the pattern over a longish period.
Since 1970 the tonnage of non-oil cargo handled in scheme ports has increased by 10 per cent., while the growth in non-scheme ports has been 334 per cent. Of course it is a much lower base line in non-scheme ports, but over the same period, if the actual rather than the percentage increase in tonnage handled is taken into consideration, scheme ports have increased their non-oil cargo by about 10 million tonnes, while in non-scheme ports the figure is no less than 40 million tonnes. However, we look at it, the plain fact is that for the past 20 years or more scheme ports have been losing market share--yet among them are some of the best-sited and best- linked ports in the country.
It is not only the non-scheme ports with which our scheme ports must compete ; we must look forwards as well as backwards. My hon. Friend the Member for
Column 110Boothferry (Mr. Davis) talked about the challenge of 1992. Key competition will come from two quarters. The creation of a single European market will stimulate trade between the Community and other countries as well as between countries within the Community, and we can expect trade with distant continents to be handled in big ships that call at one port, or at most two, in north-west Europe. Their cargoes will be brought to or taken from the port on feeder services, whether by ship, rail or road.
If our ports are to compete for that deep-sea trade with Rotterdam, Antwerp, Zeebrugge and the other big continental ports, they must improve their efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Felixstowe is already competing, but we must put Southampton, Tilbury, Hull and Liverpool into the market as well. They must be freed from the cost restrictions--and, indeed, the reputation--with which they have been burdened through being in the dock labour scheme.
It is a sobering thought that 20 per cent. of our exports to, and imports from, continents other than Europe is shipped through Antwerp and Rotterdam, and we must try to change that. I want a large slice of that 9.5 million tonnes or so of cargo to come from British ports, but there will be no chance of it--indeed, I believe that matters will get worse--if the scheme stays in place. The big continental ports are among the most efficient in the world : they are doing well, and we must give our ports every chance to compete.
I believe that the Channel tunnel, a completely novel kind of competitor, will generate more trade between Britain and continental Europe, but it will also compete for some of the traffic that at present goes by sea through our ports. It is crucial for the future prosperity of those ports that they do not have to compete with one hand chained behind their back to the dock labour scheme. What is crucial for the ports is also important for the country as a whole. The more efficient and cost-effective are our transport links with our continental partners-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Channon : It is clear from today's debate that the case for the removal of the dock labour scheme is unchallengeable. It has scarcely been challenged, either inside or outside the House. I note that neither the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East nor the hon. Member for Oldham, West said whether they would restore the scheme ; it is very curious that we have not been told that.
The Government believe that in the circumstances in which we find ourselves it is appropriate to provide fair and generous compensation arrangements for former registered dock workers. Without it, if made redundant, they would be entitled to no more than the normal statutory redundancy pay. Hitherto, dockers who volunteered for redundancy received much larger sums. Under the new compensation scheme, up to £35,000 will be available to any registered dock workers who are made redundant within the first 18 months after Royal Assent, subject to age and length of service, and up to £20,000 for the second 18 months. No hon. Member can fairly argue that those are not reasonable terms for us to offer to registered dock workers.
Mr. Robert Hughes : Is the Secretary of State able to say why it is necessary to introduce the Bill now with such speed? If he says that there is to be a tremendous expansion of jobs in the docks industry, why is he laying aside £13 million to pay for redundancies?
The inefficiencies that have been so amply displayed and that are set out in the Government's White Paper show only too clearly the handicap that so many of our ports suffer because of the dock labour scheme. I ask the House again to note an extraordinary feature of the debate. Neither the hon. Member for Oldham, West nor the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East has answered the simple question that has been put to them time and again : will the Labour party reintroduce the scheme, should it regain office? Will it, or will it not? I ask the House and the country to note that--
Mr. Prescott : We have made it absolutely clear, as we did in our election manifesto, that we want the right to participate in action against unfair dismissal to be given to the workers. We believe in levelling up. Therefore, when we next come to power, the dock labour scheme will be considered within the context of a transport policy and a ports policy that gives employment rights to workers.
Mr. Channon : The House will draw its own conclusions from that elaborate reply. I think that what the hon. Gentleman means is no, but I do not think he will say that. Why did the hon. Member for Oldham, West say on radio that Labour would support the dockers if they came out on strike? Is that still the Labour party's position? It is extremely unclear. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will now get up and say whether he intends to support the dockers if they come out on strike. I shall give way to him, too. Will he answer that question? No, he does not intend to answer it. The Opposition are frightened to tell the country the truth.
Finally, do the Opposition still stand by their 1976 attempt not only to strengthen the dock labour scheme but to extend it still further? Some hon. Members would vote that down. They look very unhappy ; they know that the Labour party supports an unacceptable scheme. The Opposition spokesman will not answer my questions. What does the Labour party have to hide? Why will it not tell the electorate? I thought that the Labour party was in favour of open opposition as well as open government. It is clear that we are not to be given an answer.
At the time when the Labour party is telling the electorate that it has been born again, it is ironic that it should choose to back yet another loser. What we object to is when it tries to take the country with it. The hon. Member for Oldham, West condemned the abolition of the scheme because it could lead to industrial action that would damage the economy, yet he supports just such a strike. Nothing could show more clearly what the Labour leadership thinks about the economy of the country and its priorities.
There has been a catalogue of disasters in the constituency of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East. A company proposed a new steel terminal in Hull. Thanks to the dock labour scheme, it pulled out and 250,000 tonnes of cargo a year disappeared from Hull. The
Column 112Hull container terminal was closed after Geest pulled out after eight years, because of continual industrial action. As the United Kingdom director of Geest said,
"The people of Hull will have a right to ask, why are we again allowing stupidity to rule?"
That is what the hon. Member for Oldham, West supports. The Labour party continues to support this ridiculous dock scheme. Everyone knows that it should be abolished and I ask my hon. Friends to join me in voting for the Bill.
Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time : The House divided : Ayes 298, Noes 195.
Division No. 158] [10 pm
Alison, Rt Hon Michael
Amery, Rt Hon Julian
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)
Bevan, David Gilroy
Biffen, Rt Hon John
Blackburn, Dr John G.
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Body, Sir Richard
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Boscawen, Hon Robert
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia
Bowden, A (Brighton K'pto'n)
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)
Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon Alick
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Clark, Hon Alan (Plym'th S'n)
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Cope, Rt Hon John
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)
Davis, David (Boothferry)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Emery, Sir Peter
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)
Fenner, Dame Peggy
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Fishburn, John Dudley
Fookes, Dame Janet
Fowler, Rt Hon Norman
Fox, Sir Marcus
Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Glyn, Dr Alan
Goodhart, Sir Philip
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW)
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Griffiths, Sir Eldon (Bury St E')
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)
Hamilton, Hon Archie (Epsom)
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Hampson, Dr Keith
Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')
Hayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)
Hicks, Robert (Cornwall SE)
Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
Hordern, Sir Peter
Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)
Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)