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Column 590Government, even for one with a wafer-thin majority, but especially so for one that is dealing with such a finely tested constitutional issue.
The Government have not proved their case. Indeed, from a political point of view, it is inept to bring forward a guillotine this early because it is bound to exacerbate the present delicate state of industrial relations. It will not make anybody's job any easier. It would have been perfectly proper and, indeed, statesmanlike for the Secretary of State for Employment to say, "We will run the Standing Committee slowly. We will take time and allow hon. Members of all parties to table new clauses at the end of our Committee proceedings." However, the Government are bringing forward a timetable motion just 29 hours into the Committee's deliberations. That is a scandalous abuse of procedure.
This is an important Bill and we are anxious to see removed from the statute book what we regard as continuing restrictive practices. However, we do not want to return to the bad old days of casual labour. We need some assurances from the Government and a Government strategy for the ports, not just a return to free markets. We need assurances that go far further than those that we have been able to get to date in the Standing Committee about the need for training and retraining. Above all, we need more time in the Standing Committee to cross-examine the Government, to scrutinise their programmes and to test their plans for the future of the docks industry, which is important to the future of this country.
Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West) : I welcome the opportunity to speak in this guillotine debate and must declare an interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) because I, too, have lunched with the port employers.
The guillotine motion is important. Many Conservative members of the Committee have not taken part in the Committee. We have listened and have said nothing on occasions, and we have heard nothing to make us change our minds during the 29 hours that the Bill has been debated. After 29 hours, we have not got beyond clause 1 stand part because the Opposition--I acquit the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) of this charge, because like us he has sat and listened and has not said a great deal--have attempted to replace the dock labour scheme, which the Bill clearly attempts to abolish, with a different scheme. In effect, it would be "son of the dock labour scheme". That idea has been put forward cleverly by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) and his hon. Friends, who want to build a new scheme under an entirely different name. We have listened, we have seen that for what it is and we have voted against it time and time again. We have not accepted that any of the arguments have any credence.
Some Opposition Members have spoken at great length in Committee. On one occasion, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) spoke for two and a half hours. Much of his speech was an attack on the Government and on Conservative Members, couched in abusive terms. Four of the Opposition members of the Committee are sponsored by the Transport and General Workers Union. The view that I have formed--I am probably not alone in this on the Government side of the Committee--is that they are earning their sponsorship
Column 591money by fighting Ron Todd's war--the war of the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union--in Committee. They have been dangling like puppets on a string and dancing to his tune. I can quote the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) who is not in his place, when he told us during one of his long interventions--
The hon. Member for Newham, North-West told us that he viewed the role of the Labour party in Parliament as that of the political arm of the trade union movement and said that that is how he acts. Like Nelson when he put the eyeglass to his blind eye and said, "I see no ships," that is the way in which the Labour party has continued the debate in Committee. Indeed, it could be said that the problem of the dock labour scheme is that, unfortunately, not enough ships are seen in dock labour scheme ports. That is why it was necessary to introduce the Dock Work Bill, which I commend to the House. In Committee, the Opposition have totally failed to address the major issue that the Bill attacks. In the past, the dock labour scheme has clearly deterred investment because companies will not invest in ports covered by the scheme. That has deprived inner cities of investment in thousands of acres of derelict land in cities such as London, Glasgow and Liverpool, which is on the edge of my constituency. For that reason above all, it has been necessary to introduce the Bill. Employment in scheme ports has contracted, but that point was not addressed by the Opposition in Committee. Trade in scheme ports has declined and the number of registered dock workers has fallen.
In contrast, we have seen the growth in non-dock labour scheme ports that at one time did not exist. They have grown only because of the existence of the dock labour scheme. Non-scheme ports that handled little or no cargo in the 1940s, such as Felixstowe, have adapted, prospered and expanded ; they show how modern, well-managed ports can use technology to secure prosperous and well-paid employment. I am afraid that that is in marked contrast to what has happened in dock labour scheme ports.
One point that Conservative Members have tried to address in Committee--the Opposition have totally failed to address this--is that the contract of employment in scheme ports must be the only contract of employment known to English and Scottish law that contains a criminal sanction if the employer employs somebody who is not a registered dock worker, or whatever the scheme implies. Such criminal sanctions are nonsense in this sort of society.
The second point not addressed by the Opposition is the question of jobs for life. In Committee, the Opposition tried to suggest that doctors, lawyers and other people in our society have jobs for life. Although those people can all be made redundant from their jobs, under the dock labour scheme, redundancies to reduce the work force are impossible. When the dock labour scheme is abolished,
Column 592dockers in scheme ports will find that their terms and conditions will be the same as those for the rest of the working population, which cannot be a bad thing.
It is important to note some of the abuses within the dock labour scheme-- for example, ghosting and bobbing. There are examples in Garston and also in Liverpool, where three registered dock workers must be employed each day between Monday and Friday for the reception of scrap on to the quay prior to loading. Those men are ghosts. They play no part in the operation. If the ships are bigger, upwards of 16 ghosts can be employed there. They must be employed by the employers.
Recently in Liverpool, T. and J. Harrison and Bulk Cargo Handling Services were closed. The local employers, who already employed far more labour than they needed, refused the local board's request to take on workers who had been laid off. The unions on the board threatened an immediate local strike, with the possibility of a national strike, if the local employers did not reconsider their decision or if there was any move to place the men on the total unattached register.
Liverpool, like many other dock labour scheme ports, has been crucified by this ridiculous scheme. There was no possibility of any meaningful discussions with the Transport and General Workers Union about this scheme. The section convenor, Mr. Connolly, said that there would be no discussion about it. He was supported by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), who has been quoted in the Morning Star and many of the Left-wing journals as saying that, effectively, the Labour party will support the union, as one would naturally expect the Labour party to stand by unions should they find themselves in difficulty over the operation of the dock labour scheme. As recently as the end of March, he is quoted in the Lancashire News as saying that that is what will happen. That is what we expect.
We have no intention on this side of the House of forcing a strike. We do not want to force a strike. It is interesting to note that we have seen on the television a combination of Mr. Connolly and the hon. Member for Oldham, West sitting together discussing the matter. Is it not peculiar that there has been no strike during the period of the local government elections? Should we draw the conclusion that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) is right in saying that the Labour party is nothing more than the political wing of the trade union movement?
It is clear that, if dockers consider what we are trying to do, they will realise that there is no need for any strike and that the reason the Bill is going through as quickly as possible is that the Government are interested in protecting the national interest. We would be foolish to stand by like Caligula feasting while Rome burns. We on this side of the House and Conservative Members on the Committee have no intention of doing that. I regard the guillotine motion as essential. I hope that the entire House will join me in the Lobby to support it.
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Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston) : The hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) on a number of occasions referred to Liverpool. I remind the House that those slogans, which are thrust about day by day by Conservative Members, are a thinly disguised way of hiding the real reasons for the Government wanting the abolition of the national dock labour scheme. Ghosting and bobbing were practices that came about with the co- operation of the employers, because when ships were loading or discharging the employers demanded that the derricks were working and the hook was moving for the entire period for which that vessel was being loaded or discharged. The intense labour involved in loading and discharging vessels of cargoes, such as hides, beef and chemical cargoes, required men to take breaks from time to time. That system meant that the employer was maximising his labour to the absolute. The welting that went on in those days was necessary so that people could maintain the levels of production that the employer demanded.
It has been clear from the outset that the real reason for the Government wanting to abolish the national dock labour scheme--with the co-operation and collusion of employers who for the past 30 years have wanted to abolish it--is that they detest the trade union movement and the rights that workers have won through negotiations with the industries to which they belong. It is absurd for the party of privilege to refer to the dockers as privileged people. The Conservative party demands the retention of its power and privilege over the masses in this country ; it has done so from the dawn of political history. Conservative Members should be the last to refer to dockers as privileged people and to raise that red or blue herring.
It is clear that the Bill is being railroaded through by the Government to remove as quickly as possible from the statute book all the present conditions in the dock industry. However, they have suggested nothing to put in their place.
I went on the Committee reluctantly. I believed that it was ritualistic to go on the Committee, because of the present Tory majority and its determination to abolish the scheme. No answers were given to questions raised by other members of the Committee. The Government now see fit to guillotine the Bill. One can argue that, in those circumstances, that Committee could be seen as a jury as appointed after the death sentence had been passed. The Secretary of State then hastily arranged for the execution by bringing in the guillotine.
Hon. Members talk of delay on clause 1, but clause 1 is in fact the Bill. The seven clauses that follow are consequential. Clause 1 abolishes the scheme. If clause 1 is the Bill, it is reasonable and proper that those Opposition Members who are opposing it should be given, first, the greatest opportunity to examine and probe the Government on the issues and, secondly, to discover what the Government intend to do about replacing the existing conditions as they apply to training, welfare, discipline and such other matters as are governed by the national dock labour scheme. So far, we have not been told.
Conservative Members have said that they are not prepared to respond to the suggestions of the Opposition on any matters. They have turned deaf ears to the forthright suggestions put to them, such as that a key
Column 594industry cannot be left in a void. The docks are a key industry, and it appears that the Government are dealing with them in a cavalier fashion. Both in peace and war, the industry has played a key part in the creation of wealth in Britain. Indeed, when the second world war started, the main concern of Winston Churchill and Ernie Bevin was what would happen to the docks. Because of the pre-war conditions, the docks were in turmoil and chaos, and that situation continued into the post -war period. The state had to intervene to ensure that the ports were secure and that there was an understanding of the agreements under which the men were working. They made a major contribution to the war effort, and that was understood at that time.
I wonder what would happen in the unhappy event of a similar situation arising in the not-too-distant future. Would the Government leave the docks in the position that they will be in after the abolition of the scheme? Of course not. They would ensure that a similar scheme, if not the scheme itself, was in place to see that the whole of the docks industry was influenced by these disciplines. There is no doubt in the minds of those serving on the Committee that the Government have not been prepared to listen to any of the arguments advanced about what will happen after the abolition of the scheme ; nor have they shown any sign that they are worried about what will happen. It is obvious that the Government have been absolutely doctrinaire and dogmatic in taking this decision, which is why they will not move on the issue.
It is the height of hypocrisy by those who have spoken today to say that the number of hours spent on the Bill so far is an abuse of parliamentary democracy and Committee procedures. In all probability there is no precedent for a Bill being guillotined as this one will be. One can only put it down to the fact that the Government do not want to hear the case or listen to the questions being asked about the docks industry, the scheme ports and what will happen to them after the scheme is abolished.
There is utter confusion among dock workers about the outcome of the Bill and what will happen to their industry. Already, dock workers are leaving the industry en masse. This direct interference, based on pure political dogma, will create great difficulties in the port transport industry.
It has been evident from today's debate that Tory Members intend to get this legislation on the statute book without paying full regard to what is happening in the industry. To them, the scheme is the last bastion of trade union influence in this industry. They have made relentless attacks on the trade union movement since 1979 and they see this as the culmination of their attempts to take away the influence and power of trade unionism in the industry.
This is not the first or second time that attempts have been made to damage trade unionism. They go back to its birth, but it has survived and it will survive. The trade union movement will see through the Government as the public are now seeing through them. In the past four months we have seen ever greater criticisms of the Government's vindictiveness and inability or lack of desire to listen to anybody. Other sections of industry are becoming aware of what is going on.
There can be no justification whatever for the Government's actions. We should see the fullest possible debate in Committee and on the Floor of the House so that the Government answer our questions and the industry is not left in the mess in which they intend to leave it.
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Mr. Tim Janman (Thurrock) : Before I say why it is in the interests of my constituents to have this simple legislation passed as quickly as possible, I shall make a couple of points to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood).
In the mid and late 1970s, the Liberal party supported guillotine motions introduced by the Labour Government. I remind the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire that, during a debate on procedure in February 1986, his party voted for the guillotine to be applied to all Bills which spent more than 25 hours in Committee. I will give way to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) now, if he wishes.
Mr. Dobson : If the hon. Gentleman is so convinced that the abolition of the dock labour scheme appeals to his electors, why, last Thursday in the county council elections in Thurrock, did the Labour party win 56 per cent. and the Tory party 35 per cent. of the vote?
Mr. Janman : I shall bring two points to the hon. Gentleman's attention. First, in the ward of Tilbury and South Grays, the turnout dropped to 21 per cent. The Labour party had a much lower vote than it would normally expect. That was mainly due to the opposition of the Tilbury Labour party to the Royal Navy coming to the civil port of Tilbury. Many loyal Labour voters in that part of my constituency are beginning seriously to reconsider whether to continue voting for the Labour party.
Secondly, in 1981 the Labour party won all eight county seats in Thurrock and the Conservatives won the 1983 general election. In 1985, the Labour party won all eight county seats in Thurrock, and we went on to win the 1987 general election. The hon. Gentleman will be interested to know that, in 1989, the Conservatives gained a seat from the Labour party in the borough of Thurrock. Two thirds of the ward is in my constituency. We had an excellent turnout of our supporters and we gained a seat in the borough which has helped to re-establish overall Conservative control in Essex. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that the Labour party doing worse in the 1989 county elections in my constituency is pertinent to its doing better in the next general election than in the past two, I am at a complete loss to understand how he can justify his logic and analysis.
Since the proposed abolition of the scheme, a large number of companies have already started to contact the chief executive of the port of Tilbury and are showing great interest in coming to Tilbury to carry out many different types of process work. They have long been prevented from coming to Tilbury because of the dock labour scheme. It is extremely frustrating that the Opposition are filibustering on the Bill and making
Column 596inordinately long and tedious speeches, because every day that the Bill is delayed, masses of new jobs that will be created in my constituency are being further delayed.
Opposition Members have said that it has taken the Government 10 years to introduce the Bill. I remind them that it has taken the Labour party 10 years to produce its policy review. Once the scheme is abolished and it is clear that the dock industry is free of it, the results will be much more positive for the docks, although it has taken us 10 years to introduce the Bill, than the results of the Labour party policy review, although it too has taken 10 years to produce.
This is only an eight-clause Bill. The Committee has been sitting for 29 hours. Even of one subtracts the small amount of time that we have taken off for bio-breaks and something to eat, we have been debating the Bill for 27 hours 33 minutes. That means that an average of more than three hours has been spent on each clause.
As I said, in terms of parliamentary perspective, the Bill is simple and short, and there is certainly no need for it to stay in Committee any longer than 1 pm on 18 May. It seems perfectly reasonable and justifiable to bring debate to a close in that period. We will have plenty of time in which to debate all eight clauses fully, to examine the Bill in detail and for the Committee to report back to the House. I am pleased to be able to support the Government's timetable motion.
Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West) : It is good to listen to a valedictory from the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman) ; the county council elections last week showed that he is firmly headed for oblivion.
It is customary for Oppositions, whose job it is to oppose, to condemn the use of the guillotine as an unwarranted restriction on parliamentary debate. However, I submit to the House that on this occasion, the violation of parliamentary prerogative is out of all proportion to previous use of this procedure.
My research discloses that the Government have guillotined at least 25 Bills in the past 10 years. Excluding Bills debated in Committee of the whole House, which are special, the average time a Bill spent in Committee before the guillotine was used was no less than 83 hours. That time ranges between 115 hours and 44 hours. The number of Committee hours spent on the Dock Work Bill, as the Leader of the House said, was 29 hours, which is scarcely more than one third of the previous average during the past 10 years. That is why the Opposition are so angry. We do not want to make a merely ritualistic demand but, as the Leader of the House was forced to admit, the Government have set a new precedent, for which there are good reasons.
As far as I can discover, there is no precedent for anywhere near so brief a Committee stage before the imposition of a guillotine. The Government have been forced into using artificial devices to bring the number of hours even to 29. We are entitled to ask why the Government, having clearly decided by the beginning of last week to impose a guillotine, forced the Committee and my hon. Friends to sit into the night last Tuesday until 4.5 am on Wednesday, as Hansard records. Having already decided to use the guillotine, why was there a sittings motion on that day alone of almost 12 hours? There is a pretty obvious answer to that question.
Column 597The Government clearly wanted to provide a figleaf, however threadbare, for the guillotine that they had already decided to impose. That is not their first abuse of Parliament during the passage of the Bill. The Government have treated the House with contempt at every stage of the handling of the Bill. They produced a White Paper without any consultation and contrary to repeated assurances that we had from Ministers, including the Prime Minister, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) so strongly pointed out in a passage to which he did not receive a reply. The Bill was published the very next day. The Second Reading debate was held on the first permitted day thereafter. The Bill was sent to Committee after only eight days, instead of the usual fortnight, and an afternoon sittings motion was moved by the Minister immediately at the start of the first day in Committee, which is, I believe, without precedent for so short a Bill. Now, to cap it all, a guillotine has been imposed after the Bill has been in Committee for a uniquely brief time. After such a catalogue, all I can say is that the longer the Government are in office, the more arrogant they become day by day.
The indecent haste that the Government have displayed over this Bill can be illustrated by comparison with their treatment of their Pilotage Bill which began its journey through the House five years ago. It was not dissimilar to the Dock Work Bill. It involved 1,300 marine pilots and deregulated pilotage. A Green Paper was produced in 1984 and a White Paper in 1985. The Bill went through Parliament in 1986 and 1987 and a day was appointed for its implementation on 1 October 1988. Therefore, we are entitled to ask why the Government allowed four years for the Pilotage Bill but insistently demand that the Dock Work Bill should be in Committee for only four weeks. That is a relevant question, to which we have never received an answer. I shall suggest an answer. The reason for the Government railroading the Bill headlong through the House with an arrogant contempt for Parliament--an arrogance matched only by the contempt for the Government shown by the electorate last week--was made clear by the Tory newspaper which sometimes has access to inside information, The Daily Telegraph. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman reads that newspaper, and he may have read the issue of 13 April in which it said :
"Dock employers who use outside workers to break a strike against the abolition of the Dock Labour Scheme could risk court action and possibly jail, it emerged last night. Ministers have been alerted to a legal trap facing employers wishing to keep the 40 scheme ports running.
Until the Bill scrapping the 52-year-old scheme is on the statute book later this year, it will remain illegal to employ non-registered dockers in ports maintained by the Dock Labour Boards.
At present, if an employer taken on non-registered workers without the approval of the local Dock Labour Board he is liable to prosecution and imprisonment for up to three months, or a fine or both.
The threat of legal action is likely to dissuade employers from bringing in non-registered workers."
This is the point :
"It has also convinced Ministers that the Bill should go through Parliament swiftly."
There we have it. The guillotine has nothing to do with parliamentary niceties.
Column 598is a scandal ; so do we, but for more serious reasons. The guillotine has nothing to do with the niceties of Parliament, about which the Government care not a fig. The Bill is being driven through the House at unprecedented speed because it is a strike- breaking measure in the event of a strike. That is the real, unspoken reason why the Government are ready to breach all previous parliamentary rules and why they turned the Committee stage into such a farce, in which amendments were not even being seriously considered.
Mr. McLoughlin : The hon. Gentleman used that extract in Committee, but he cannot have it both ways. He cannot accuse the Government of trying to engineer a strike and at the same time engineering a method of overcoming a strike if it happens. Will the hon. Gentleman please clarify his position?
Mr. Meacher : The hon. Gentleman is extremely naive if he thinks that the Government are incapable of doing both. Many people are suspicious that they are doing just that. The Government have adopted a cynical posture. The Secretary of State says, for public consumption, that the Government will not become involved in the current trade dispute, and that negotiation is purely a matter for the local employers. However, at the same time, behind the scenes, the Government break every rule in the parliamentary book in order to abolish the scheme as fast as possible to hand the employers the most potent strike-breaking weapon to use if industrial action occurs. The trouble with the Government is that they are far more interested in precipitating a strike and then making political capital out of it, as a distraction from their mounting economic and political difficulties, than they are in trying to prevent a strike in the first place. They are uniquely in a position to prevent one if they choose to make a real effort to do so. That is why the Secretary of State keeps intoning in committee that the abolition of the scheme is a matter for the Government and that the role of Parliament must not be usurped, yet he refuses point blank, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) so eloquently pointed out, to negotiate on what might follow the scheme, saying that that is a matter for the employers. When the Transport and General Workers union tries to negotiate with the employers, it is told that this is all a political matter for the Government. If the Government would only put half the energy into negotiating to prevent a strike that they are putting into provoking one by adamantly refusing to negotiate, Britain could be saved a dangerous, lengthy and damaging strike which no one except the Government wants.
The Secretary of State's assurances do not carry much credibility when he forecasts a smooth transition to local collective bargaining in which employers will respect employee rights and local trade union bargaining. That was the story that the Minister repeatedly put across in Committee. A letter from one local employer sent out on 27 April from Mersey Container Terminals Ltd. gives the lie to these claims by the right hon. Gentleman :
"If after a ballot has been held and by a majority of strikers called some of the men go on strike and some stay in work those men on strike would be dismissed for breach of contract ... if once again a strike has been called and all men go on strike they will all be dismissed for breach of contract."
Column 599That lets the cat out of the bag. It means that, under the new regime, there will be no right to strike or to withdraw labour. So much for the preservation of basic employee rights.
This same employer goes on to set out an 18-item employment contract which each worker is required to sign and return to the employer. So in future, there will be no collective bargaining--so much for all the smooth talk about a natural return to normal trade union bargaining rights. This shows clearly what abolition of the dock labour scheme is all about.
Abolition is not about efficiency. A recent study states : "A crude measure of efficiency, the tonnage moved per docker per year, reveals an even result between both scheme and non-scheme ports. For 1987, the last year that complete figures were available, each scheme docker moved 13,346 tonnes of cargo, compared with 13,655 per docker in non-port schemes".
So by that efficiency measure, there is no difference between scheme and non-scheme ports.
Abolition is not about productivity. The scheme ports have had a productivity gain of no less than 720 per cent. over the past 20 years. That is an indisputable fact, and it is a record almost unmatched in British industry.
Abolition is not even about profits. Associated British Ports, the largest port employer, returned profits last year 22 per cent. up--£46 million ; its dividends were up by 33 per cent. and the chairman's salary went up a miserable 22 per cent. to a mere £119,000 per year. Abolition is all about power, the ending of joint determination, and the reassertion of the unilateral prerogative of the employers to hire and fire at will.
I end by quoting the words of a Tilbury docker, who expresses this much more clearly than anyone here could :
"The say we have in our industry is the say that every working man should have in his industry. We have it and they are trying to take it away from us. Doing away with the scheme has nothing to do with port efficiency. It is purely political. Under the national dock labour scheme we have an input into how our industry is run, something that is totally foreign to this current Government's way of thinking. No working man should have a say in how his industry is run--that is what they think and that is really what it is all about. It has got nothing to do with efficiency ; it is all to do with dogma."
It is because this Bill is about political dogma, not economic efficiency, and about strike breaking, not the national interest, that we utterly reject this unprecedented, partisan and self-serving use of the guillotine.
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Norman Fowler) : It must be pointed out first that, as my hon. Friends the Members for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin) and for Thurrock (Mr. Janman) said, after 30 hours debate in Committee we are only part way through clause 1. At that rate of progress we shall be in Committee until 1990. This motion will make it possible to hold a further 30 hours of debate, making a total of 60 hours for an eight-clause Bill. The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) incorrectly referred to a lack of precedents. There are precedents, and I think he knows them--
Mr. Fowler : My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House named two : the Town and Country Planning Bill of 1946-47 was introduced by a Labour Government, and the Social Security (No. 2) Bill of 1979-80 was introduced by this Government.
The flavour of the Committee proceedings can be sampled by reflecting on the conduct of the Opposition whip. Whips are traditionally the silent men of Westminster. In this case, the Opposition Whip has been warned nine times from the Chair for tedious repetition.
There have been lengthy contributions by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). Looking around the Committee Room, he said how nice it was, after Sky Television, to have such a big audience. I do not object to that. The trouble is that it went entirely to his head and led to a speech of more than two hours.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby has frankly admitted that his intention has been to delay. I am not saying that we have not learnt from the Opposition in Committee. Sometimes we have not learnt much about the dock labour scheme, but we have learnt about a whole range of other matters--the after-hours activities of television crews visiting Rotterdam, the printing of Chiang Kai Shek's banknotes, employee relations in the Japanese mushroom -growing industry and the frustrated ambitions of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks).
To this gallery we have now added the shadow Leader of the House, who predicts that there will be a return to casual work. We have heard the hon. Gentleman's predictions about transport before. When I denationalised the National Freight Corporation, he predicted that no one would want the shares, and certainly not people working for the company. That became the most famous employee shareholding scheme of all time. The hon. Gentleman's predictions have about as much authority as those of the weathermen before the great storm of 1987.
Mr. Dobson : If the right hon. Gentleman is so confident that there will be no return to casual working, why will he not insist that the employers guarantee that in negotiations with the union? Why will he not give the assurance statutory backing so that, if the employers turn out to be lying, a law will be in place to offer dockers the protection they ask for?
Mr. Fowler : We are moving away from a statutory scheme. I should have thought that virtually every commentator in this country accepts that the undertakings given by the employers about no return to casualism take the position a great deal further than it has ever been before. The Opposition should accept that, too.
Mr. Fowler : Opposition Members need only look at the position in the non-scheme ports--there is no need to look into the crystal ball--where trade and employment have increased and there has been no return to casual labour. It is about time that Labour Members accepted that.
Column 601The suggestion of the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, that we had planned the debate for today because there might be a tube strike must rank as one of the silliest suggestions ever heard in the House, even from the current occupants of the Opposition Front Bench.
The right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) raised a number of points. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) said, we need not be prepared to take lectures from him, considering that he introduced five guillotine motions in one day.
The right hon. Gentleman particularly asked about the view of Lord Aldington. We have that on record, in response to the statement made in the other place. The noble Lord said at that stage that he was wholly in agreement with the line that had been announced. In short I paraphrase his remarks--he said that he was delighted that a scheme based on entirely different conditions, not there today, which involved damaging casual labour, not there today, would be ended and that all the ports would be put on level pegging. That position of the noble Lord adds authority and support to the case that we are putting.
Several hon. Members referred to the position of people in the industry from the point of view of consultation. The positions of those involved have been irreconcilable. The Transport and General Workers Union has stated repeatedly its attachment to the fundamentals of the scheme and has regularly threatened national strikes in the event of any suggestion that the scheme's damaging restrictions should be reduced. The union has refused five approaches from the employers to consider voluntary arrangements to replace the scheme.
When the then Secretary of State for Transport, now the Secretary of State for the Environment, invited the unions and employers to discuss voluntary arrangements to replace the scheme in 1986, the national secretary of the TGWU docks group, Mr. Connolly, replied : "Having in mind our position that the Dock Labour Scheme is to remain, I see no point in joint discussions to provide for arrangements which might follow its removal."
In 1987 he repeated that by saying :
"The policy of the Docks and Waterways Group has not changed. There will be opposition to the amendment or revision of the scheme, and that opposition will take the form of a national docks strike." It is significant, that in the debate in Committee and indeed in the debate outside, little attempt has been made to defend the dock labour scheme. When it has been defended, that has been done on arguments that applied to a position 40 or 50 years ago. The debate is now establishing that, in the context of the 1980s and 1990s, the dock labour scheme cannot be defended.
It is impossible to defend a statutory monopoly which makes it a criminal offence to employ other than registered dock workers in many of the ports of this country. It is impossible to defend a scheme which acts as a disincentive to investment, not only in scheme ports but in the areas around the ports. It is impossible to defend a scheme which, in spite of all its restrictions and regulations, has seen employment fall and trade disappear to non-scheme ports and to ports on the continent.
In the final analysis, the dock labour scheme is against the interests of the ports, against the interests of the areas adjoining the ports and against the interests of those