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Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne) : The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) criticised the Government because, in his view, they changed their mind about the abolition of the dock labour scheme. At the very moment at which the hon. Gentleman addressed the House, a meeting of his party's national executive was taking place. It is a matter of deep regret to you, Mr. Speaker, as it is to me that neither the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) nor the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) is a member of the national executive. Their stabilising influence would have been much in demand.
The remarks that characterised the hon. Gentleman's speech--those about changing policy--could not have been made at a more opportune time. We are told that the Labour party's most important sovereign body--its national executive, no less--is examining every aspect of Labour party policy. Judging from some of the criticisms that have come from Left-wing members of the Labour party, it is certainly possible
Mr. Gow : I was saying that an accusation that was levelled at my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment was that the Government had changed their policy. That accusation can properly be levelled at my right hon. Friend--it is a fair allegation--but there is no sin in changing policy.
Mr. Robert Hughes : I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman has got it wrong. There has never been any doubt in the Government's mind or in their proposals that at some stage--they have said this in writing--they intended to tackle the national dock labour scheme. The deception in the change of policy is that they said that it would not be tackled this Parliament, but suddenly, with no more than 24 hours' notice, a White Paper and a Bill were produced.
Column 567has been a change of policy, it lies ill on the lips of the shadow Leader of the House to rebuke us for changing our policy when today and tomorrow of all days the Labour party is engaged on what purports to be a change in its policy.
Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East) : Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that we are different? My right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party said two years ago that it was his intention to review his policy, but the Government were saying that they had no plans to abolish the dock labour scheme precisely when they were feverishly working on the White Paper. The Labour party has been completely honest and open, whereas the Government have been completely dishonest.
Mr. Gow : There is certainly room for two views on the openness of the Labour party when conducting its policy review. We are told that the great documents that are under consideration today will not be published until next week. I do not want to stray too much into the policy of the Labour party--
Mr. McLoughlin rose--
There is another aspect to the charge that has been levelled at my right hon. Friend with which I wish to deal. Almost 30 years ago, I made a journey to Blackpool. The right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent was also there. We both attended the Labour party conference that followed the then unprecedented third successive defeat of the right hon. Gentleman's party. He will remember as vividly as I do the speech made by Aneurin Bevan, who said, "You know, comrades, to change policies is not a confession of sin ; otherwise the whole of history would be a series of confessions." I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will remember those words.
I advise my right hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench that I welcome most warmly the change of policy or change of timing that led to the introduction of the Dock Work Bill. I do not wish to rebuke my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment for having decided to introduce that measure at this time. If I have any criticism of my right hon. Friends, it is that they did not introduce the Bill earlier. The Government having made the courageous and correct decision to introduce the Bill, and my having studied what happened in Committee, having read the speeches of some Opposition Members and having been reminded of the 29 hours that have passed, it is perfectly clear that my right hon. Friend's timetable motion would have been justified, even had he introduced it earlier. Therefore, my right hon. Friend, who has expounded the principles upon which the introduction of a timetable motion should rest, is entirely justified in what he has done.
I go further. I believe that there is a case for such actions when it becomes clear--as it frequently does, even before we embark on the Committee stage of a Bill--that there will be deep controversy and deep hostility. Had I been in the shoes of the hon. Member of Holborn and St. Pancras--it is difficult to put myself into the mind of a Socialist, but I shall try--had I been a member of the Opposition
Column 568and had I been strongly opposed to the Bill, of course I should have deployed precisely the tactics that have been employed by the Labour party in Committee. Nobody is rebuking Opposition Members for doing that. All we are saying is that the Government have a responsibility to secure the passage of their legislation. While ensuring a reasonable opportunity for debate and in relation to the length of the Bill, this timetable motion is most generous. Therefore, that which we are being asked to do this afternoon is entirely reasonable. I hope that the Bill, which has been too long delayed, will reach the statute book in the minimum time.
Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston) : Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that it is not necessarily the number of clauses in the Bill that matters, but the effect that one clause will have on the entire industry? Therefore, his argument that it requires only a brief period of discussion does not face up to the reality that those eight clauses will overturn completely the practices in one of this country's key industries.
Mr. Gow : I do not under-estimate for one moment the importance and significance of the Bill or the far-reaching consequences that it will have for our docks and for our dockers. The hon. Gentleman is right. I believe that the situation that will apply in our docks after the Bill has reached the statute book will be greatly superior to that which we have endured for so long to the great disadvantage of our country and of those who work under the present scheme. I reject the accusations of the shadow Leader of the House. I believe that the motion is entirely justified. I look forward to the Bill reaching the statute book.
Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent) : As the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) and others have said, it is inevitable that Ministers and others will change their minds about particular forms of legislation that have been before the House. Nobody would advance the idea that such changes should be denounced just because they are changes. That would be utterly absurd on any day of the week, let alone on a day when my party may be discussing policies elsewhere. However, it is a matter of great importance to the House that, when changes are made--especially dealing with previous agreements that may have been made with great sections of the community-- those changes should be carried through in a way which at least to some degree conforms with the House's conventions, which have been established to protect people's good faith and previous agreements.
I have a sort of double interest in the dock labour scheme and what the Leader of the House has proposed. I am interested because I recall what happened both when I was Leader of the House and when the dock labour scheme was discussed. It is bad faith for the Government to do what they are proposing, partly for the reasons that have been elaborated by my hon. Friends, which I will reiterate, and partly because of what happened some years ago.
Between 1970 and 1979, both under the Administration of the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) and under the Labour Government, there were many discussions between dockers' leaders and employers
Column 569and people engaged in the dock industry, after which it was agreed to continue the dock labour scheme, partly because of what occurred just after the war--casual employment and all the horrors associated with that--and because later we wished to establish the scheme on a more far-reaching basis. That was why we introduced the Dock Work Regulation Bill in 1976 on which there was a guillotine motion. However, the Leader of the House and, I am sorry to say, the Secretary of State for Employment appear to forget the agreements that were made between dockers' leaders, the trade unions--chiefly the Transport and General Workers Union, although it was not the sole union dealing with the docks-- and the dock employers. There was an agreement between Lord Aldington and Jack Jones, which was known as the Jones-Aldington agreement. It was the basis on which they provided for the future of the industry for a number of years ahead. As often happens in properly conducted industrial affairs, concessions were made on both sides, and agreement was reached between the representative of the employers, Lord Aldington, and Jack Jones, who represented the Transport and General Workers Union. They came to a bargain, but the Government have torn it up.
I am sure that Lord Aldington would never have been a party to such a procedure as this. Indeed, I wonder whether the Government have ever asked him or those who speak for him on these matters what he thinks about it. An agreement was reached between the employers, represented by Lord Aldington, and the unions, represented by Jack Jones. If, for whatever reasons, it is to be departed from, the Government should say, "Let us negotiate. Let us see what we agreed before and how we may change it." The Department of Employment should have followed that procedure, whatever Lord Aldington had to say. That is why it is so disgraceful for the Department to proceed in this way without any offer of negotiations.
Time and again when the Bill was discussed the other day my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) put the Government on the spot when he said, "Won't you agree to negotiations? Why have you rejected them? Why not have negotiations now? There is still a chance." Every offer and every suggestion of a way to settle the matter by negotiation rather than by dispute was mooted by my hon. Friend in a most admirable speech for the Opposition.
If peace breaks down, the guilt will rest directly on the Government Front Bench. The chief guilt lies with the Secretary of State for Employment, but now it must be shared by the Leader of the House, who is a party to this method of deceiving the House of Commons. This is a deceit. Not many weeks ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) and I were present when the matter was discussed. The Government gave not the slightest sign that they would change their mind and depart from the agreement. In a sense they accepted our arguments and rejected those on the Order Paper tabled by Tory Members. Again, that does not bind the Government for ever, but if they wished to be honest in changing the position they should have talked to the unions, the dockers and the House of Commons about it. Instead, they did the whole manoeuvre behind everybody's backs.
That is why I say that the Leader of the House has behaved disgracefully. He could have stopped this. He
Column 570could have said, "All right, first let's see if we can negotiate with those with whom we negotiated previously. Let us see whether the unions consider the circumstances to be as much changed as the employers do."
The Government have torn up an agreement which was reached despite great difficulties in the docks. They have torn it up unilaterally. How can they think that they can ever say convincingly to workers, "You must stand by your agreements. You must not break any agreement, " when they have broken up most brazenly the whole agreement between employers, the Government and dock workers?
The other day we had exchanges about how the Government would operate these guillotine motions. The Leader of the House has come near to telling us that he favours a permanent system of timetable motions. We all know that that has been debated frequently in the House and that the Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure favours the proposal, but the House has always rejected it, and rightly so.
Even when I was in government and wanted to use timetable motions--I was forced to use them in certain circumstances, to maintain any sort of rights for the Government--I was opposed to having a system of gullotine motions settled in advance, which is what the right hon. Gentleman is now moving towards. The Leader of the House is doing so surreptitiously. He did not have the nerve to tell the country and the House about the exact procedure for dealing with the dock labour scheme and, in the same way, he has not told us exactly what he intends to do about this procedure. He seems to favour a settled system of timetable motions, and he is moving pretty fast towards it. He has introduced more guillotine motions than any other Leader of the House. That is all the more indefensible for a Leader of the House whose Government have such a huge majority. Almost all the measures would have been passed through the House quite easily without being guillotined.
This Bill may have taken a bit longer, but, with the Government's huge majority, it would still have been passed. Therefore, the right hon. Gentleman would not have forfeited the measure. It appears from what the right hon. Gentleman says that he favours a full timetable system before Bills are introduced. I oppose that, as should all Opposition parties and Governments with any sense about Parliament's future.
Such automatic and wide-ranging timetable motions play straight into the hands of the Government. They give the Government every power to complete the business, whatever the opposition from whatever quarter, and however deceitfully the Government have operated, even if they have gone behind the backs of the House, as they have with the dock labour scheme. The Government know that the legislation will go through. I hope that the House of Commons will always reject regular timetable motions which the right hon. Gentleman seems to be moving towards, even if he has not yet had the nerve to put it forward as a general proposition.
Mr. Wakeham : The right hon. Gentleman makes a serious point. However, he is not being in any way fair. I made it abundantly clear that I did not agree with the report of the Select Committee on Procedure that recommended the automatic timetabling of public Bills, and I got into a fair amount of trouble for doing so. I have resisted following that recommendation. I have brought in
Column 571timetabling earlier than in the past, although not by an enormous number of hours, in order to give better consideraton to the legislation. It is better for the House to work as closely as possible with agreement on both sides. A strong body of opinion in the House wants automatic timetabling of Bills. However, I do not agree with that, for the reasons described by the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot).
Mr. Foot : I am glad to hear the right hon. Gentleman say that. Anybody who was listening to him a few minutes ago would have drawn a different conclusion. He was near to applauding the Liberals' most ill- advised proposal that timetabling should be done on a regular basis. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has had a conversion on this heavily trafficked road to Damascus and that we have plucked him back to righteousness on that crowded thoroughfare, although I do not know how long he will stay there.
The right hon. Gentleman and I had a slight difference of opinion one evening last week. I quoted to him the extraordinary statement about guillotine motions made by Lord Whitelaw. Lord Whitelaw was being interviewed by Mr. Brian Walden and, as I said, I was not sure who was interviewing whom. Brian Walden laid it on thick about the wretched, shoddy, fifth-rate legislation that was being passed through the House of Lords and the House of Commons with no proper preparation. No hon. Member would doubt the truth of his allegations about the quality of the Government's legislation. However, to my surprise--because he is a genial fellow--Lord Whitelaw said that I was responsible for this position.
When I come to my final day I shall be perfectly prepared to answer for quite a number of parliamentary sins and I know them better than any other hon. Member. However, I shall not be made answerable for the shady and shoddy legislation which the right hon. Gentleman shovels through the House in the most disreputable manner. This is another example of it. The legislation being forced through the House is deteriorating rapidly.
I do not blame the draftsmen ; I know what pressures are put on them. Bad legislation was pushed through last year--the poll tax, and so on--and at the fag end of the autumn the right hon. Gentleman had to introduce another half dozen guillotine motions to get the stuff through by the final day. Now, it is happening again.
It is even worse in this Session. All who sat through the two debates on the official secrets Bill know what a shoddy piece of legislation it is. Yet the Government hardly permitted a single amendment of substance to the measure, in this or the other place. The right hon. Gentleman and the Conservative party have an even bigger and more irresponsible majority in the House of Lords than they can manipulate here ; that is becoming a dangerous thing for British democracy.
I do not believe that pleas from me or others will change the right hon. Gentleman's mind. The House now has no proper access to the Cabinet. The first business of the Cabinet should involve the Leader of the House telling the Prime Minister and reporting faithfully to the elective dictatorship what has occurred in the House. If the right hon. Gentleman had done that job properly in recent weeks and months, he would have had to report that the Government might have won a few votes but had hardly
Column 572ever won a debate. I challenge anyone to deny that what I am saying was true of the official secrets debate and of the last measures on which the right hon. Gentleman introduced a guillotine. He left it a bit late last time--we still had quite a good debate. He will not run that risk again. This time the chopper comes down even more quickly. It is even more evil when the guillotine is applied to a measure that is of importance not only to the way in which we conduct our affairs here but to people of the country who are of great importance--the dockers. They have as many rights as others. The judges can tell the Government that they must have a chance to discuss proposals before they are shovelled through over their heads ; the dockers have as much right to say that as the judges. The right hon. Gentleman has made a grave mistake by introducing this measure, and he has done great injury to the House. In Cabinet on Thursday he should report that fact and advise the Government not to have another guillotine for a few weeks, because the British House of Commons will not stand for this for ever.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West) : I welcome the motion. It is important to move on and reach conclusions on this subject. In Committee, it has been openly admitted several times, particularly by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), that Opposition Members intend to string out the proceedings as long as possible. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby has diligently attended when he has made speeches--but that is about all. He has been quick to leave as soon as he finishes.
I was interested to hear the shadow Leader of the House say that things were going from bad to worse. He implied that today's business had been changed to try to coincide with the tube strike. Next he will accuse the Government of having been behind the Underground management's move in the courts to try to have the strike delayed--a strange accusation. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is short of accusations to make, but he cannot defend the sort of tactics which his fellow hon. Members have deployed in Committee. They have tried to keep the Committee going for as long as possible without contributing to the debate. He said that he wanted the debate to be long. Nobody objects to lengthy debates, so long as they are genuine, but the Chairman of the Standing Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Mr. Knox), has had to call hon. Members to order. For example, he said recently :
"I must admit that I am waiting with eager anticipation for the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) to refer to the amendments rather than explaining why he was not present during the previous sitting."--[ Official Report, Standing Committee A, 2 May 1989 ; c. 124.]
The Chairman has had to make that sort of statement on many occasions.
Labour Members have made the strange suggestion that we introduced this legislation to promote a strike. That is an odd claim, even by their standards, because we take pleasure in the knowledge that the number of strikes has fallen dramatically since we have made unions more accountable to their members for their actions. Strikes hurt the nation's economy and its reputation.
Column 573that he suggests but because trade unions have had a steel ring put round them by legislation? That makes it virtually impossible for strike action to occur without endangering not just union finances but possibly the unions themselves. But workers continue to worry about what is happening to their industries as a result of measures being taken by the Government.
Mr. McLoughlin : I cannot see the hon. Gentleman's objection to trade unions having to ballot their members before strikes are called. He may be right to say that that impedes the activities of the unions, but it gives rights to trade unionists, those who must earn a living and who sometimes must accept action which is imposed on them and which they would prefer not to take. If we are charged with having returned trade unions to their members, I plead guilty with pleasure. Indeed, it could be said that trade union legislation has not gone far enough. After all, a strike lasting 12 months occurred against British Coal, when a number of us wanted to go to work and in the end succeeded in doing so.
Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough) : The hon. Gentleman knows about mining--[ Hon. Members :-- "No."] He represents part of Derbyshire and I believe he was a miner. He occupies one of the greatest Tory seats in the country, embodying, among other places, Chatsworth house. Is he not aware of the fundamental difference between dictatorship and democracy--the right to withdraw one's labour? It is now virtually impossible for workers to engage in that democratic right because the anti- trade union laws make it likely that unions will have their funds sequestrated.
Mr. McLoughlin : The hon. Gentleman is obviously at total odds with all the trade unions reforms that we have introduced. Perhaps that is why the Labour party does not intend to repeal a number of them-- [Interruption.] --according to those attending a great meeting that is taking place today at the home of the very trade union that has most to fear from the legislation that we are discussing.
What will be the effect of the Bill at the end of the day? We have been told of non-scheme ports--
We know that some workers in non-scheme ports are earning more than their counterparts in scheme ports, and it seems that the Opposition are determined that that should continue. They are not prepared to allow individuals to earn the money they want.
Mr. McLoughlin : Of course I am not suggesting that. I know that the Labour party's headquarters is at Walworth road. The meeting of today's national executive committee is taking place at Transport house. At least, that is what the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) said when he was about to attend the meeting to condemn everything that appears in the documents that are to be discussed. The right hon. Gentleman agrees with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery). He
Column 574thinks that every piece of trade union reform legislation that the Government have introduced should be repealed. That is not what the Leader of the Opposition is saying.
I am aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I am being side-tracked. I am sure that you would soon call me back to order if I were to continue to stray, as it were.
Mr. Nicholas Bennett : I am glad to have the opportunity to intervene in my hon. Friend's speech before he leaves the important issues of industrial relations in the docks and the Labour party's attitude to them. I understand that a meeting will take place today and tomorrow to fudge and mudge, to quote the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) and the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). Has my hon. Friend seen the transcript of the television programme "On the Record"? I refer to the programme on 23 April entitled "Union Powers Under a Labour Government", during which the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) promised that a Labour Government would bring back secondary picketing. What does my hon. Friend think the effect of that would be on labour relations?
Mr. McLoughlin : I think that the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), who leads for the Opposition in Committee, found himself in a dilemma. We learned after he made that statement that he was not speaking for the Labour party officially. Instead, he was speaking in a personal capacity. My hon. Friends and I asked the hon. Gentleman in Committee whether he was speaking as an Opposition spokesman or in a personal capacity. I do not want to dwell on that issue any longer.
Shortly after it was announced that the Bill would be introduced to the House of Commons, I heard an interesting interview with the hon. Member for Oldham, West on the Jimmy Young programme. Jimmy Young asked the hon. Gentleman whether the Labour party felt so strongly about the Bill that it would reintroduce the dock labour scheme as a matter of urgency if there were another Labour Government. The hon. Gentleman gave an interesting answer. He said that Jimmy Young had asked a purely hypothetical question. I was not sure what was hypothetical--another Labour Government or the reintroduction of the dock labour scheme. The hon. Gentleman did not make that clear. Probably both events are hypothetical. The Labour party has been reluctant to declare that it feels so strongly about this measure--
Mr. McLoughlin : The hon. Gentleman had better find out-- [ Hon. Members :-- "Withdraw."] In view of the hon. Gentleman's statement, I most definitely withdraw. I can only say that someone who gave the name of the hon. Member for Oldham, West was interviewed on BBC Radio 2 about three or four weeks ago. I shall check the record, as I am sure will the hon. Gentleman. However, if he says that he gave no interview on the Jimmy Young show, I withdraw.
Throughout our consideration of the Bill in Committee, the hon. Member for Oldham, West has been reluctant to say that there would be circumstances in which the Labour party would be eager to reintroduce the dock labour scheme.
Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West) : Does my hon. Friend agree that the Jimmy Young programme often picks up news interviews and that it may well have used an interview from another part of the BBC? Was it not noticeable that the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) did not say that he disagreed with my hon. Friend's argument? He did not say that that was not what he was saying in other interviews. Perhaps it is merely that he did not say what my hon. Friend has suggested was said by him during a Jimmy Young programme.
Mr. McLoughlin : The hon. Member for Oldham, West was certainly very reluctant to say that a Labour Government would reintroduce the scheme. In Committee, he found it difficult even to justify the present scheme. Instead, the Opposition referred back to other documents, saying that they would like to talk about the scheme and expressing the view that it needs changes--but they have not made any concrete proposals.
However, in Committee we heard a number of comments such as that made by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby about my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman). The hon. Gentleman said : "The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman) is a new Member and does not know the ways of Parliament. In these circumstances the only power available to the Opposition is that of argument and delay. It is our only weapon, especially against a Government who so shamelessly misuse their powers."
When I challenged the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, he replied : "I shall underline the simple constitutional point for the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin), who seems too obtuse to grasp it. The Opposition's only weapon is delay. That weapon will be deployed in proportion to the Government's intransigence in trying to force the Bill through. If they behave in this fashion the weapon of delay will be mobilised at length."--[ Official Report, Standing Committe A, 2 May 1989 ; c. 216, 225.]
Any negotiations that may have taken place had no impact on the activities of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, who was recently sacked from the Opposition Front Bench because he started work with a new television company. Incidentally, his attendance at Standing Committee A was a little questionable, but that is fair enough. He still made speeches of great length and took up the time of the Committee. He let the cat out of the bag, saying that the Opposition's only intention was to delay the Bill's progress through the Committee, come what may.
Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West) : The hon. Gentleman, in quoting from the Official Report of Standing Committee A, attempts to suggest that it was only the Opposition who tried to introduce delay. If that is so, perhaps the hon. Gentleman can explain the remark made by the Chairman of that Committee, who is not a member of the Labour party, when he said :
"It must be about two hours since I heard anything relevant to the amendments."
Then, in response to my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), the Chairman commented :
"My remarks applied to hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, including the Minister."
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can explain the misuse of time by the incompetent bunch of Ministers who serve on the Committee. It is their inability to answer questions properly that delayed the proceedings. That was highlighted by the Committee's Tory Chairman when he said :
Column 576"Thoughts have been expressed on both sides of the Committee, from the Treasury Bench and elsewhere, in interventions." --[ Official Report, Standing Committee A,
2 May 1989 ; c. 221.]
From that it is clear that ministeral team's incompetence has delayed the Bill.
Mr. McLoughlin : I agree that the Chairman of the Committee made that point. However, in fairness to the Under-Secretary of State for Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls), who wound up the debate, I point out that he was trying to respond to some of the spurious points made by Opposition Members. I should be happy to produce a full breakdown of the time taken by Opposition Members in that Committee. A lot of time wasting went on, but most of it came from those hon. Members who spoke the longest. A full breakdown of the time taken by the various speakers will give my right hon. and hon. Friends nothing to worry about, because their interventions were short and to the point. Many of the comments that have been quoted suggest that the Opposition have wasted a tremendous amount of time.
Mr. McLoughlin : The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He cannot accuse us of delaying the Committee and making spurious points, and tell us off for not taking part. That, I think, sums up our case. The charge against Conservative Members this afternoon is that we have not taken part in the debates--that we have stood back to let the Opposition have their say if they want, and that after 29 hours we have still not managed to complete the stand part debate on clause 1.
For a number of reasons, I think it absolutely right for us to move forward to get the Bill on to the statute book--not least for the benefit of those employed under the dock labour scheme. I do not know whether Labour Members are going round saying, "We are fighting this tooth and nail in the House of Commons and we will try to stop it getting through," but that is unfair on those employed in the dock labour scheme : their uncertainty must be put to an end as quickly as possible. I think that all Conservative Members will give wholehearted support to the motion.
Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North) : Much of the debate has proceeded on the basis that the Government have either changed their mind or not done so ; that there is a reason for the Bill, or no reason for it. The interesting thing is, however, that from beginning to end no single Minister or Back Bencher has said why it was necessary to introduce the Bill at this time.
We know, of course, that there have been discussions about the dock labour scheme for many years. The Government sometimes seem to operate as though they were in a fog of ignorance : they keep saying that the scheme must be changed, but the truth is that the scheme as it is now is quite different from the scheme as it was first introduced. Several changes have been made, and each of those changes has been arrived at through discussion and sometimes argument. Both sides have recognised that nothing is immutable : when a scheme is in operation for
Column 577more than 40 years, some wrinkles may be expected to develop. Alterations in technology and in patterns of trade are expected to warrant change, which should be considered openly.
Our charge against the Government is that they have not considered the issue openly. Every time that it has been raised in this Session, they have said--certainly by implication, and in some instances specifically--that they have no plans to tackle the dock work labour scheme in the current Parliament. I defy anyone to produce a precedent--other than emergency war legislation, for instance--for the publication of a White Paper on one day and a Bill on the next, and the application of the guillotine within a month. There is neither precedent nor reason for such action.
There is an inconsistency that no one can understand in what the Government are saying, which is why the Bill must be debated fully. The Secretary of State has trumpeted that this grand design will produce 50,000 jobs ; the strange thing is that the Bill provides for £25 million in redundancy pay, which means that between 1,400 and 2, 500 people are to be made redundant. That is an odd way of creating jobs--sacking nearly one third of the labour force at the outset. It will not bear close examination.
The White Paper and the Minister's speech on Second Reading cited Aberdeen harbour as one of the reasons why it was essential that the Bill should be introduced with such haste. The record must be put straight. There have been no industrial relations problems in the port of Aberdeen of any kind that would justify the legislation. There has been a dispute in the fish market, which is part of Aberdeen docks, but the record has to be set straight. The difficulties were not due to the fish market porters. There have been many problems in the fishing industry. There have been quota changes ; much less fish has been landed throughout the United Kingdom ; there have been changes in the pattern of catches ; the big trawlers no longer sail from Aberdeen, partly because of economic circumstances. The fish landing company therefore went bust ; it could not pay its way. Only 12 months ago it under-estimated how much fish would be landed in Aberdeen. That had nothing to do with the scheme : it was purely circumstantial.
After the company virtually went into liquidation, the Aberdeen harbour board took up the burden of trying to obtain a new licence and establish a new company. I do not blame the harbour board for seeking to make changes in working practices and in the hours worked. However, it was more than reasonable that the fish market porters should say, "If you want to change our working conditions and if you want us to work longer, we expect some recompense for it." If their working conditions were to be changed, why should they not expect to receive some recompense for it?
These matters were still under discussion when the White Paper was published. It seems that in his haste the Secretary of State did not realise that there were difficulties at Aberdeen. As there have been no consultations and discussions, the establishment of a new fish landing company is in abeyance. Neither the Aberdeen harbour board nor the trade union knows how to continue the discussions. They do not know what is to happen. That is crazy.
The result of the Secretary of State's precipitate decision is that some fish market porters are being treated differently from others. Had I spoken in a debate when the White Paper was published, I might have commended the
Column 578Secretary of State for acceding to the request of Aberdeen Members of Parliament to meet the whole of the redundancy cost--£25,000--to compensate those who have to leave the industry as a result of restructuring. Even today I might also commend him for that. However, it is quite clear that he deliberately and provocatively deceived those people into taking £25,000 in severence pay, hoping that it would all be out of the way before the offer of £35,000 came on the scene.
Some of the fish market porters accepted the £25,000 redundancy payment, while others were allowed to take their names off the list. Those who applied for the £25,000 redundancy payment were told after the £35,000 announcement, "Hard luck, your name has already gone in. The Secretary of State, by not letting on what was happening, has cost you £10,000, but that's your hard luck." I do not understand how the Secretary of State, on his salary, could justify deliberately deceiving men into accepting a lower redundancy payment than the one which would be on offer a couple of days later. It was a disgraceful abuse of his parliamentary privilege.
The Secretary of State was not concerned about the loss of £10,000 by each man. All he was concerned about was getting as many people as possible to take the £25,000, which he said he would meet in full, so that--I hope that the Secretary of State is listening because, although he may think it is of no account, this is a very serious matter--by this deceitful method he could save his friends, the employers, £17,500 per man. That will be their share of the transitional payments. We have a right to be told when the Government made up their minds to introduce the Bill. On what day did they decide to introduce it? Did they realise the discrimination that they would create in Aberdeen by announcing, in the middle of discussions about restructuring the fish landing company, that they intended to introduce the Bill?
I have written to the Secretary of State about one case. I hope that he will at least be generous enough to say that some people were caught out. He will plead his innocence--I should be surprised if he pleaded his guilt- -and say that it is unfortunate. I hope that the Secretary of State will be prepared to consider the issue of fish market porters who negotiated in good faith but accepted a lower redundancy payment than is currently available.
On Monday 3 April--again, the deception involved was
enormous--negotiations between the Aberdeen harbour board and the trade union appeared to be moving smoothly. Fair concessions were being made and much hard bargaining was being done, but negotiations were moving. I am told by union representatives in Aberdeen that on Wednesday the board suddenly did not want to know. I have not consulted Aberdeen harbour board, which might hold a different view, but the men feel bitter and sour. They believe that the Government tipped off employers and that employers decided that all negotiations were off and prepared to ride out the storm because they knew that the Government were to scrap the scheme. I hope that the Secretary of State will stop pretending that the position at Aberdeen fish market had anything to do with the abolition of the scheme.
Aberdeen has had a magnificent investment and trade record over the years. A few years ago, the harbour was in such a rotting state that if its gates were not closed when the tide went out the harbour would collapse. In negotiations with employers, a trade union convenor used to say, "If you do not settle by 5 o'clock, I will wave my