Previous Section Home Page

Column 1019

Committee on Procedure? I appreciate the problems, but it seems nonsense for the House to debate at midnight a decision that has already been made.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker) : It is a matter over which neither I nor Mr. Speaker has any control. Doubtless the hon. Gentleman will seek to make his point in the course of the debate, when the Minister may take account of it and respond accordingly. Order for Third Reading read. 8.13 pm

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Norman Fowler) : I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

We have had a long debate in Committee on the details of the Bill. What became even clearer during that debate is that the dock labour scheme suffers from a range of fundamental defects. It is a complete anomaly in the labour conditions of today, it has added to the costs of the ports covered by the scheme and has hindered their competitive position, and it has led to undoubted and unquestioned restrictive practices. But what it has not achieved has been more trade for scheme ports and, above all, more employment in scheme ports. The position remains that the dock labour scheme creates a statutory monopoly for dock work in 40 of the major ports of this country. That means that only employers and dockers who are registered with one of the local dock boards can carry out dock work in ports covered by the scheme. That monopoly is enforced by criminal penalties--a maximum penalty of up to three months' imprisonment. It is an entirely wrong use of the criminal law to limit employment opportunities in this country.

The country has suffered not only through lost employment opportunities, but through the costs the scheme has imposed. The results of the trans- shipment survey carried out by the Department of Transport, published earlier this month, show just how much the scheme places its ports at a competitive disadvantage, with ports such as Tilbury and Southampton charging almost 30 and 40 per cent. more respectively than non-scheme Felixstowe for handling similar container cargo.

The scheme has meant extra costs for the consumer, industry and the taxpayer, who has so far paid out over £770 million in financial subsidy and through the costs of the voluntary severance scheme because it has been the only way of reducing surpluses of dock workers. As the debate in Committee made clear, restrictive practices have remained widespread, while at each scheme port, there have been complex sets of rules about what is and what is not dock work. What has the scheme achieved? It has certainly not achieved a secure career for the registered dock workers themselves. Equally, it has not achieved good industrial relations in our ports.

Doubtless the authors of the dock labour scheme thought that in creating a statutory monopoly for dock work and ending the abuse of casual working they would bring about a significant improvement of industrial relations in the docks. By no measure has that been the case. There have been major strikes in every decade since the scheme began in 1947. The number of days lost as a result of strikes by registered dock workers in the scheme

Column 1020

ports, according to the National Dock Labour Board's own figures, is still three times the national average. Between 1985 and 1987, the scheme ports lost something like 528 man days for every 1,000 employees compared with a total of 183 lost for every 1,000 in the rest of industry. In the 20 years between 1967 and 1987, there were over 3,500 strikes involving registered dock workers which resulted in 4 million working days being lost in scheme ports. That is a rate of over three disputes per week.

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall) : I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that the Government themselves acknowledge that in some of the scheme ports, there has been enormous efficiency and a successful drive for improvement. If the Government had intended to abolish the scheme all along, why did they not say so in their election manifesto? They have, in effect, led many dock workers up the garden path and have provoked a conflict in which we may well have a national dock strike, with all the perils to the economy that that could bring. Why was the abolition of the scheme not included in the manifesto?

Mr. Fowler : We have never made any secret of the fact that we have been looking at barriers to employment. If the hon. Gentleman wants to swap stories about what is or is not in an election manifesto, I must point out that he will find that the 1976 legislation, which was introduced by the last Labour Government, was not set out in their election manifesto. [ Hon. Members :-- "That is not true."] It is true.

Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent) : The right hon. Gentleman had better check his facts before he misleads the House about our legislation. He misleads the House badly enough about his own legislation, so he should not mislead it about ours as well. Of course that legislation was set out in our manifesto. That is one of the reasons why it was introduced in the House.

Mr. Fowler : I shall check what the right hon. Gentleman says.

Mr. Wareing : Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Fowler : I want to reply to the right hon. Gentleman first. Over the years, a number of offers have been made by employers and a suggestion was certainly put forward by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment when he was Secretary of State for Transport. On every occasion when it was suggested that negotiations on the national dock labour scheme should take place, the reply was the same from Mr. Connolly of the Transport and General Workers Union--that there was no point in having negotiations on either ending or amending the scheme because that would be met by immediate strike action. That is the position that we have had to face.

Mr. Wareing : The Secretary of State has answered, to his own satisfaction, the question about the absence from the Conservative manifesto of any commitment to abolish the dock labour scheme. However, he will recall that on 19 January the Prime Minister said that she had no plans to abolish the national dock labour scheme. That was reiterated by the right hon. Gentleman himself when answering one of his hon. Friends on 20 March, 17 days before the publication of the White Paper on this subject.

Column 1021

Can the Secretary of State say on precisely what date he gave instructions to his civil servants to draft a White Paper to abolish the scheme?

Mr. Fowler : No, we would not do that. I remember clearly the occasion that the hon. Gentleman refers to. One of my hon. Friends asked me a question. It was on a statement on another matter--[ Hon. Members :-- "Wriggle, wriggle."] I am not wriggling at all because my hon. Friend rightly made a contribution and I said at that time that I had nothing to add to any statements that had been made before. We then had a statement on the Floor of the House and brought out the White Paper. What the hon. Gentleman and the Opposition really object to is that there was no leaking of the proposals beforehand. They cannot get used to the fact that the proposals were not leaked in advance and that they did not have the opportunity of leaking them or of publishing the White Paper in advance of the debate on this subject as they did with the Health Service White Paper.

What has been typical of this debate and of everything that took place in Committee is that Opposition Members will use any argument that is extraneous to the detail of the dock labour scheme. As we sat through hour after hour in Committee, virtually no Opposition Member, with the exception of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden), rose to defend the detail of the dock labour scheme. That has been the most significant feature of the whole debate. Doubtless the authors of the scheme thought that there would be not only an improvement in industrial relations but a better position in relation to jobs and employment in the docks for registered dock workers. However, when one considers the impact of the scheme, one realises that jobs have gone and that the new recruitment of young people has been severely limited. Thousands of registered dock workes have volunteered to leave the industry. Just after the war, there were 82,000 registered dock workers ; today there are 9,400. Clearly, there is an inevitability about some of the reductions, but I ask the House to compare that position with the position of those working in ports that are outside the scheme. By definition, the non-scheme ports were of no consequence in cargo handling in 1947 when the scheme was drawn up. That is why they were left out of the scheme. Yet in the intervening years, ports outside the scheme have come to account for half our trade in value and 30 per cent. of our trade in volume. Employment of dock workers has now risen to 4,000 and nearly one in three of all dockers now work in non-scheme ports. Investment in ports such as Felixstowe and Dover dwarfs any investment in scheme ports. The record of the non-scheme ports, gives the lie to some of the charges that have been made about the abolition of the present dock labour scheme.

In spite of all that, the only pledge made by the Opposition Front Bench in Committee was that they would reintroduce a new statutory dock scheme if they were elected and that they would extend it to new occupations such as warehousing. They intend to spread such a scheme to half a mile from the waterfront. That was the effect of one of the amendments that they tabled. In addition, they wish, want and are pledged to extend the scheme to every port in the country, including the ports that are not covered by the dock labour scheme now. If I can make a prediction, I believe that that will prove to be

Column 1022

one of the biggest and most unpopular millstones that even the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) has placed around the neck of his party. Not content with reintroducing--

Mr. Foot : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The right hon. Gentleman seems to be enlarging his speech in this Third Reading debate to discuss matters that are not in the Bill. Will we all have a full chance to answer that part of the right hon. Gentleman's case, along with our answers to the rest of his case, when he gets round to defending the Bill itself?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean) : I remind the House that the Third Reading of a Bill should be restricted to what is in the Bill, but I have heard nothing so far from the Secretary of State that goes outside that.

Mr. Fowler : I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That intervention shows the acute sensitivity of the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot). Indeed, no hon. Member should be more sensitive about the dock work than the right hon. Gentleman. His record is one of the most appalling of any Secretary of State in the 50 years of this scheme.

Mr. Foot : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, although I could, of course, raise this as a point of order. Whatever else may be said about what I have said in the past, such comments are certainly not in order on the Third Reading of this Bill. Will the right hon. Gentleman eventually come round to discussing his own Bill?

Mr. Fowler : Most certainly I will, but not before I have left this point. Again I point out to the House the acute sensitivity of the right hon. Gentleman. We look forward to a political debate outside the House on this matter--

Mr. Tony Banks : Any time, sunshine.

Mr. Fowler : In fact, I suspect that we look forward to that debate rather more than the hon. Friends of the hon. Member for Oldham, West.

Throughout the debate, one point has come over. The defenders of the present dock labour scheme are fighting yesterday's battles ; they are defending the scheme as if we had the conditions of the 1930s and 1940s. Although I very much respect the position of the hon. Member for Garston and his experience, I do not believe that he is correct in seeking to fight the Bill as if the conditions of today are those that applied straight after the second world war. We can all agree that the scheme was introduced to prevent casualism and that none of us wants to see the conditions of 50 years ago return in this country. But there is absolutely no reason to believe that there will be such a return. There is every reason to believe that there will be no return to casualism.

Let us consider the experience of non-scheme ports. The advance of the ports outside the scheme has not been achieved by either low pay or casualism. Dockers are well paid and the enormous changes in the way ships are unloaded--with new technology and containerisation--have transformed the nature of dock work and virtually eliminated the scope for casual work. Dock work is now highly skilled, specialist work which requires the use of sophisticated machinery. It requires a permanent and well-trained work force. The days when large numbers of

Column 1023

unskilled labourers assembled waiting to see whether there was work for them have gone for good--and everyone is glad of that. To underline that point, the employers in the present scheme ports have given an assurance that, after abolition, there will be no return to casual employment. That assurance is crucial. We have a dock labour scheme to prevent casualism. Port companies employing more than 90 per cent. of registered dock workers have given an undertaking that there will be no return to the casual system of working. It is not just a matter of the pledge or the assurance that they are giving, and practice in non- scheme ports already shows that that is a bogus argument. Several members of the Committee appreciated that point only too well.

Mr. Robert Hughes : If the employers are so certain about their pledges, why will they not meet representatives of the Transport and General Workers Union and start negotiations on the conditions that will follow the scheme? Where they can reach a national agreement to have no casual labour, that would be the most constructive thing to do. I hope that the Minister will do his best to make employers get down to negotiations. That is the way to make progress.

Mr. Fowler : Precisely that offer--not the offer that the hon. Gentleman wants, but the offer of talks--has most certainly been given by the employers. The employers are saying that negotiations and talks should take place at the local level, not at the national level. That is a sensible position to be in. The National Association of Port Employers does not run the ports. The port employers are the local ports. Of course, not all of them own only one port. For example, Associated British Ports owns several ports. Therefore, negotiations should take place at the local level. The Transport and General Workers Union should examine why it will not join in such negotiations and is instructing its members to boycott them. I recognise that the debate takes place when there is the threat of industrial action on the abolition of the scheme. I believe such action would be entirely unjustified and totally against the interests of the dockers. The only result would be to drive more trade from the scheme ports, and therefore to put at risk jobs in the ports. It cannot be in anyone's interest for there to be a strike, particularly when clear assurances have been given that there will be no return to casual working ; when clear offers have been made by port employers throughout the country to discuss future arrangements in individual ports ; when generous compensation has been offered in the case of any docker--such dockers are very much the minority--who becomes redundant ; and, above all, when the end of the scheme is a major step to achieving a modern ports industry--a ports industry with a future. That is in the interests of everyone working in the ports. That goal has received wide support outside the House. It has certainly received support from the industry, which stands to gain from a more competitive ports industry. It has received support from organisations such as chambers of commerce, whose members in port areas know how the scheme's restrictions have blighted business and investment. It has received support from potential investors in port areas, in warehousing and in road haulage who, to

Column 1024

date, have held back for fear of incurring the scheme's unique straitjacket of restrictions. Port users and port investors are persuaded of the need for the scheme's abolition simply because the case against it is so overwhelming. They have nothing to gain from strikes but everything to gain from the improved performance of our ports industry, which the ending of this scheme will bring about. The reason we want to end this scheme is to create a better future for those living in and around dock areas. We want to ensure that investment in port areas is not discouraged and that new job-creating investment in storage, manufacturing and transport can take place. At present, the scheme damages not only the ports but the prospects of the communities around those ports. Above all, we want to achieve a better future for our ports. We want the present scheme ports to be able to compete better with ports outside the scheme and continental ports that have taken too much of our trade in the past. Our aim is that British ports can take tomorrow's opportunities in the new position created by the single European market.

We should be clear : unless ports succeed in competing, no dock labour scheme--past, present or future--will prevent the decline of those ports. That is the lesson of the scheme over the past 30 or 40 years. There is no reason why our ports should not succeed, but they will not succeed if they are held back by all the restrictions of the present dock labour scheme. For that reason, we want to see the scheme go. It has far outlived any purpose that it might have had. The Bill is of fundamental importance for the future of our ports industry. More than that, it will remove a major barrier to the expansion of business and employment in this country. I ask the support of the House for the abolition of the dock labour scheme.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean) : Perhaps it will assist the House if I amplify the point that I made in response to the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot). I remind the House that the Bill abolishes a scheme, and, for that reason, it is in order to debate what is to be abolished, and why it is to be abolished. 8.38 pm

Mr. Meacher : As my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) pointedly said, we have just listened to a lot of bluster and a good deal of abuse, but rather little about the Bill and the arguments in Committee. As we have learnt, the Secretary of State prefers to operate in that manner. It is extraordinary that he can say that nobody has defended the scheme. I can only suppose that he so infrequently attended the Committee's proceedings that he is unaware that my hon. Friends and I, in exhaustive detail, rejected many of the Tory attacks on the scheme as incorrect, misplaced and downright wrong-headed. I shall certainly, yet again, rebut several Tory charges tonight.

We are coming to the end of the proceedings on the Bill. The most significant point that needs to be made at this stage is that the proceedings have been a farce. No other Bill in modern times has had such a history as this one. A White Paper was introduced on one day without consultation--the Secretary of State did not seem to understand the significance of that point--and the Bill was published the next day. The Second Reading was rushed through on the first permitted day thereafter. The

Column 1025

Committee proceedings were started-- unusually--only eight days later. After an indecently short interval of only 29 hours for an eight-clause Bill, the Committee proceedings were abruptly guillotined, and a 4 am sitting was needed even to reach 29 hours. The Report and Third Reading stages are now being dealt with a mere six days after the completion of the Committee proceedings. It is clear, and it has never been denied by Ministers, that the main reason for this precipitate pell-mell rush is that Ministers want the Bill on the statute book on the first day possible so that the port employers, who are at present prevented by law from taking on non-registered dock workers, will at the first possible moment be able to bring in workers from outside as blackleg labour to break a strike, if that is what occurs.

Mr. David Davis : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Meacher : I will give way in a moment, but I want to finish this point.

Frankly, the handling of the Bill has been a shameful abuse of the House. The Government have been far more concerned to secure the option of strike breaking, if it is needed, than they have ever been bothered seriously to debate the merits of the Bill.

Mr. David Davis : Are not the hon. Gentleman's complaints somewhat undermined by his own statement, I believe in the initial stages of the Committee, that this is a single-clause Bill with seven contingent clauses? We were discussing, in effect, one clause for all that time.

Mr. Meacher : If in the correct sense it is a single-clause Bill--it is a single issue Bill--and if we had very nearly completed the debate on that clause by the time that the guillotine was imposed, why did the Government impose the guillotine? If there were no other major issues left in the Bill, why did they impose the guillotine? We know that the Government did that because they were determined from the very first day-- months ago--that they would have the Bill passed by about the end of June or the first week of July so that, if industrial action took place, the Government could allow employers to bring in blackleg labour. The Government had no interest in any serious discussion of the Bill in Parliament.

Apart from the concertina-ed timetable, the Committee stage has been a farce, because the Government have clearly been determined from the outset not to accept a single amendment. I have never been involved in a Bill to which an amendment, however minor, was not seriously considered. Indeed, much of the time they have given the impression that they were not even listening. We have been largely engaging in a dialogue of the deaf. The Ministers have simply been going through the motions and paying no serious attention to the Opposition's arguments.

None of the central contentions that we made on Second Reading and in Committee has received an answer, convincing or otherwise, from the Government. We never had any response to our central argument. Everything that the Secretary of State has said tonight shows that he was not listening. We never had any answer to the central argument that most European countries, and indeed many non-European countries, operate dock labour schemes, which, through a variety of structures, all provide for the direct involvement of a trade union and dock workers in matters of recruitment, training, welfare, medical services and redundancy. We have never had an answer to the

Column 1026

obvious question : if the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium can have successful and efficient dock systems, why cannot we? There is complete silence ; we have never had an answer to that question. If those countries can run successful systems with dock labour schemes, why cannot we?

We made the essential point that competitor countries regard their ports as part of the basic national infrastructure. Their ports receive heavy Government subsidies. The Department of Transport estimates that port costs for conventional deep-sea freight are typically 60 to 100 per cent. higher in the United Kingdom than at continental ports. That is because, as the British port authorities have estimated, port subsidies in the rest of the EEC amount to about £200 million a year. That is why British ports are not as competitive as they could be. It has nothing to do with the dock labour scheme. However, when we pointed that out to Ministers, all they would say was that they were seeking to get agreement through the EEC to reduce port subsidies. They ignored the effective point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) in Committee that, when the issue is nuclear weapons, this Thatcherite Government demand to negotiate from strength but, when it comes to port subsidies, they are content to negotiate from a position of weakness. Their real concern is not to cut port subsidies, but to hammer the British dock worker. If only we had a Government who valued and trained their work force in the docks instead of regarding them as the enemy within.

Mr. Tim Janman (Thurrock) : If I hear the hon. Gentleman correctly, he is trying to make the point that the existence of the dock labour scheme and its abolition are completely irrelevant to international competitiveness, vis-a-vis the docks' competitors in Europe. If that is so, why is it that, in the short time since the Government announced their intention to abolish the scheme, one major timber importer, who is currently importing timber from the far east into Europe via Rotterdam, has already contacted the chief executive of the port of Tilbury to say that he will be interested, once the scheme has gone, in bringing those imports into Europe through Tilbury rather than through Rotterdam?

Mr. Meacher : After the results of the county council elections, it is clear that the hon. Gentleman will certainly be leaving us next time, so we are always glad to hear his valedictory. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could explain why Tilbury has done so exceedingly well while being a scheme port. Tilbury has been extremely successful. It is well managed, it has an excellent dock work force, its profits have substantially increased over previous years and its productivity has increased as fast as anywhere. I doubt whether ships are turned round faster anywhere in Europe than they are at Tilbury, and that is while there is still a dock labour scheme.

We never had an answer to our key contention : if the dock labour scheme so inhibits efficiency and modernisation, why is it that productivity in scheme ports has been every bit as high as that of any non-scheme port? In 1965, scheme ports handled 261 million tonnes, with 65,000 registered dock workers. In 1986, they handled 308 million tonnes, with 10,400 dock workers, that is a 730 per cent. increase in productivity in terms of volume per worker in

Column 1027

20 years. We would be glad if the Secretary of State could tell us of any other industry that could match an increase in productivity of 730 per cent. in 20 years.

Mr. Fowler : The hon. Gentleman is simply taking credit for the job losses in the scheme ports. He has raised the question of productivity and Tilbury, but will he now explain to the House why the Department of Transport's survey, which was published only this month, shows that Tilbury and Southampton are charging nearly 30 and 40 per cent. more respectively than non-scheme Felixstowe for handling the same container cargo?

Mr. Meacher : Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman should ask the management, because, if that is a management policy, it is certainly consistent with a great deal of success at Tilbury. Tilbury has probably been the most successful port in our country, despite the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman), who represents either it or an adjoining constituency, running it down. If it is its management's decision to price at that level, it has not prevented that port's considerable success and rising profits.

Mr. Fowler : The hon. Gentleman should remind us how much public money has gone to the Port of London Authority, and therefore to Tilbury, over the years. He is making a point about Tilbury, so will he remind us of that position?

Mr. Meacher : The right hon. Gentleman was the Minister responsible for providing that money. I take it that he is not asking whether it can be justified. He did it, and we are perfectly well aware why he did it. London and Liverpool were in peculiarly difficult circumstances. The right hon. Gentleman, when he was a Minister responsible for transport in 1980, came to the House with a Bill significantly to increase subsidies, partly to take account of difficult trading conditions and partly to bring about redundancies with proper compensation. When this happens in the private sector, the right hon. Gentleman gives us a lesson about successive productivity. When it happens in the public sector, we are told that it is all a matter of redundancies. This must apply both ways. There have been considerable reductions in the number of dock workers as a result of voluntary severance, and there has been a huge increase in productivity.

Despite our exchanges across the Dispatch Box, the Secretary of State has not answered my central question : which other industry has matched the productivity of the scheme ports? He cannot answer that question.

Mr. Fowler : Of course I can. The non-scheme ports have far exceeded the productivity of scheme ports. That is a matter of fact.

Mr. Meacher : That is the point that I was coming to, and it is not true. That is precisely the kind of answer that we have received from Ministers throughout the Committee stage and it demonstrates my point. Ministers simply do not listen. They do not provide evidence or arguments. They simply make assertions and when we check the facts we discover that those assertions are not justified.

In 1987, the last year for which complete figures are available, each scheme-port docker moved on average

Column 1028

13,346 tonnes of cargo, while each non- scheme port docker moved on average 13,655 tonnes, almost exactly the same amount. That minuscule difference has occurred despite the fact that non- scheme ports enjoy the huge advantage of geographically strategic locations on the east coast so that they can benefit fully from the switch in Britain's trade over the past 15 years to trade with the EEC. The Minister's arguments, statements or flourishes are simply not true. They cannot be validated.

Mr. Ernie Ross : The Secretary of State is trying to claim that more valuable cargoes came through specific ports. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) will consider the fact that, historically, certain cargoes came through certain ports. For example, Dundee was a jute centre. Jute is not as valuable an import as advanced technological imports such as computers or video recorders. The Secretary of State's case does not stand up. He obviously does not accept that Tilbury has been a successful port.

Mr. Meacher : My hon. Friend has provided a convincing answer to a point which the Secretary of State was trying to make from a sedentary position. No doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) will develop his point if he catches your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Secretary of State should accept that Tilbury has been one of the most successful ports. It is remarkable that, because it is a scheme port, the Secretary of State will not say that it has been such a profound success.

Mr. David Davis : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Janman : Will the hon. Gentleman give way now?

Mr. Meacher : No, I will not give way. I have given way to both hon. Members and I will not give way to them again.

Mr. Fowler rose--

Mr. Meacher : I think that the Secretary of State is abusing his position. He has already intervened three times.

We have not received an answer to our central contention that the abolition of the dock labour scheme will lead to the return of casualisation and a general worsening of the terms and conditions of dock workers. The Secretary of State repeated tonight what the Government have said endlessly throughout the Committee stage, that 90 per cent. of employers have issued a press release with a wonderful rhetorical flourish claiming that there would be no return to casual labour. That was about as convincing as Chamberlain waving a piece of paper and saying, "Peace in our time."

The Secretary of State must be deaf or obtuse. He is not responding to our arguments. In Devlin 2 in 1970, the employers made the same promise that they have made today. Within 18 months of that statement, after the collapse of two companies, the employers jerked back into life the temporary unattached register--in other words, they reintroduced casualisation.

The Government have not responded to the fact that we pointed out that Mr. Peter de Savary, who is one of the big port employers, has made public his intention to use casual labour for his new terminal on the Isle of Grain. The Secretary of State may screw up his face because this is a

Column 1029

bit embarrassing. Mr. de Savary has said that, and if Mr. de Savary has said it, I for one believe him. We have had no ministerial reply or comment on that observation.

There has also been a deafening silence from Ministers on another point. In an industry in which traffic constantly fluctuates, the employers' obvious objective is to reduce to a core labour force and employ the remainder on a casual basis. It is absolutely manifest that that is what they intend to do. Ministers and the Secretary of State have simply said that casualisation hardly exists in non-scheme ports. Not even that is correct, because it exists at a level of about 6 per cent.

The Secretary of State argued again tonight that the same conditions will apply after the abolition of the scheme. However, that ignores the crucial point which we continue to make--that the dock labour scheme provides a marker for proper standards. Once the scheme has disappeared and as new cowboy operators enter the industry, commercial market pressures will drive down standards in the absence of a statutory framework. We have had no reply to that argument. The port industry will be the latest in a long line of industries in which Government deregulation of the labour market has led to a levelling down of standards, not a levelling up. There is already pertinent evidence that that will happen.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett : What about the buses?

Mr. Meacher : The resident buffoon from the Committee, who I see has been let out for the day, has made a very unwise comparison with the buses. The experience with the buses illustrates well the kind of thing that is likely to happen in the dock industry. It has experienced a worsening of standards and labour conditions and a reduction in routes.

Mr. Bennett : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Meacher : No. The hon. Gentleman has made his point and I have replied to him.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Nicholas Finney, the director of the port employers, called for

"the integration and assimilation of registered dock workers into the rest of the port employers' work forces."

What lies behind those weasel words is revealed by the port employers' current treatment of their workers who are not protected by the scheme. Therefore, proposals relating to non-registered workers at Swansea, recently put forward by the Associated British Ports, call for a reduction in engineering staff from 68 to 16, a cut of more than three quarters. Those staff are to be replaced by contractors. That is the latest in a long line of job cuts made by ABP since its privatisation six or seven years ago.

That shows that, with the dock labour scheme gone, registered dock workers will be, to use Mr. Finney's words, assimilated and integrated right out of their jobs, with casualisation no doubt disguised as contracting out. The port employers have refused to respond to any of those concerns. Indeed, they have taken the opportunity to scrap existing national negotiating machinery that has been in place since 1920--27 years before the introduction of the dock labour scheme. Nothing could make the employers' intentions clearer. We do not need to make predictions. I have already drawn attention to a new contract of employment. Again, the Secretary of State has completely ignored the evidence. I shall be glad to pass the contract on to him. It is dated 27 April, three weeks after the abolition of this scheme was

Column 1030

announced and two months before it could be abolished. It is a contract from one port employer, Mersey Container Terminals Ltd. Contrary to the smooth assurances that we have heard again tonight about the easy transition to local collective bargaining, the contract makes it clear that there will be no collective bargaining, national or local, and that any dock worker who does not sign an individualised contract of employment, drawn up by the employer on a take- it-or-leave-it basis, will simply be sacked.

That is the position facing dock workers. So much for the Government's assurances. Like the employers' assurances about casualisation, they are simply not worth the paper they are written on.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight) : The hon. Gentleman can either plead his case because of casualisation or tell the House, as he has just done, that those employees are being asked to sign a contract of employment. A contract of employment is designed so that an employee has a stated term of contract employment. Therefore, that cannot be casualisation.

Mr. Meacher : I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman, who has just joined the debates today, seems to understand so little and totally misunderstands the point that I was making. I can give him only the arguments, not the ability to comprehend them. All I was saying was that there is a contract of employment which an employee can either sign or not sign, but if he did not he would be sacked. That is not exactly the local collective bargaining which the Secretary of State said would be the basis on which the ports industry would be run from now on.

The Bill is fundamentally about the essence of the Government's opposition to the scheme and their objection to joint decision making and their hostility to the 50 : 50 employer-trade union representation on the dock labour boards. They repudiate any limits to management's so-called rights to manage absolutely, and tell workers what they are to do. These themes run throughout their critique of the scheme. In that respect, the dock labour scheme is perhaps the nearest we have in this country to industrial democracy and worker participation. That is why the Government hate it so much. The Government call it blocking ; we call it co-operation. Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley) rose --

Mr. Meacher : No, I shall not give way.

It is an instance of workers taking responsibility, and that is why it is anathema to the Government.

Mr. Riddick rose --

Mr. Meacher : No, I shall not give way. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to make a speech later, but I am now drawing to a close.

For several years, in cahoots with the employers, the Government have planned and plotted the destruction of the scheme. It is becoming clearer by the day why they finally pulled the trigger six weeks ago. Ministers have never denied the scenario first made public by the Channel 4 programme "Dispatches" on 12 October last year. It was then stated that abolition would be saved for what was called a "political rainy day".

I am sure that the Secretary of State will not like this because it is the truth which he has been trying to conceal from the nation ever since the announcement was made. The programme presenter continued :

Column 1031

"Tory MPs and industry sources have suggested to Dispatches that should the Government get into serious difficulties, for example over the balance of payments, then they would use the repeal of the scheme to rally their supporters and public opinion against the unions." It was a cynical picture of industrial provocation for political ends, but that is exactly what has happened.

It is ironic that, on the very day set by the Government for the completion of the Bill's passage through the House, the bungling and mismanagement of the Government's economic policies have forced up intererst rates to 14 per cent., which will wrench up the retail prices index another notch, exacerbate the price-wage spiral and, eventually, worsen mortgage misery still further.

If there is a fitting epitaph for this despicable, politically motivated little Bill, surely that is it. The Bill is as contemptible as the Chancellor's arrogance in the face of his own manifest failing--but, thank God, it will not be long before we are called on to reverse the destructiveness of both.

9.4 pm

Mr. John Townend (Bridlington) : I rise with great pleasure to support the Third Reading of the Bill, whose enactment will be an important milestone for the once great port of Hull. I am privileged to represent the hinterland in the eastern suburbs of that port, and I have been fighting for the abolition of the dock labour scheme for many years--as chairman of the finance committee of the county borough of Hull, as leader of Humberside county council and as Member of Parliament for part of the area.

When I was a boy, Hull was the third port of the greatest empire that the world has ever seen. Today it is not even in the top 10. Why? It is not because of lack of investment ; there has been plenty of that. Nor is it because of lack of opportunity : as the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) has said, ports on the east coast have had their opportunities. There was enormous scope for expansion when we joined the Common Market, and it was inevitable that trade would move progressively from the Atlantic, the old Commonwealth and Liverpool to Hull and the Common Market. Hull was the gateway to the continent for the industrial heartland of Yorkshire and--with the opening of the M62--Lancashire. It should have had everything going for it : it should have become the Europort of Britain, but it did not.

Which ports benefited? Felixstowe benefited. When I was a boy Felixstowe was a creek with an old wharf, in the middle of nowhere and with no communications. Why did Felixstowe get the trade? Because it was not a national dock labour scheme port and had excellent industrial relations. As a result, by 1987 it was working no less than 2.5 times as much tonnage as Hull, and last year its tonnage increased by another 24 per cent.

It was not only Felixstowe that took Hull's trade. Hull has lost trade to dozens of private wharves that have sprung up along the Humber, the Ouse and the Trent. Today those private wharves work more tonnage than the once great port of Hull. It is a tragedy that from the pier in Hull the ships can be seen sailing past on their way to the private wharves. All that capital investment has gone to waste, and all those expensive facilities are unused.

Next Section

  Home Page