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Clause 2

Dissolution of National Dock Labour Board

Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) : I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 2, line 10, at end insert

but no such order shall be made until a body has been established which will make provision for the training and welfare of dock workers (formerly within the Scheme) and port medical facilities'.

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The amendment seeks to establish a body which will take over the training and medical functions of the National Dock Labour Board when it is abolished under the Bill.

The Government have repeatedly refused to elaborate on the arrangements that will follow the abolition of the board. Indeed, it is the issue of what will follow the abolition of the board and the dock labour scheme that is at the heart of the dispute between the National Association of Port Employers and the Transport and General Workers Union. The union is concerned about the threat of casualisation and wishes to secure a collective agreement that covers job security. The union has also expressed its wish to secure arrangements--again involving the union--which would cover the training and the medical facilities provided by the board. Those were among the issues raised by the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union at the union's meeting with the port employers on 18 April.

It is as well to understand that, under the agreement, we are not seeking to perpetuate the dock labour scheme. It is not a device to replace the scheme with a new scheme, because the kernel of the dock labour scheme is the monopoly employment aspect, which is the element of the scheme that requires that only registered employers can be responsible for dock work at our ports and that only registered dockers can carry out the work. That monopoly will go with the Bill and the amendment will not reinstate it. That is not to say that we do not share the union's concerns about the threat of

casualisation--we certainly do. It must be said that the employers' record post-Devlin, when they gave certain undertakings in relation to casual work that were not sustained, fully justifies the suspicions of the union and of the individual registered dockers. 6.15 pm

In the amendment we are dealing with the provision of a body to provide for training after the abolition of the board and to maintain the medical centres which are already operated by the National Dock Labour Board. It is as well to acknowledge the value of the existing training arrangements. There are two training bases, one at Liverpool and one at Tilbury, each with a chief instructor and, I believe, about six training instructors. Those instructors must be mobile, because they cover a substantial area of the country. We have always argued that the quality of training provided by the NDLB is high and that that is a resource which should not be dissipated and lost. We were not at all reassured by the Government's statements in Committee. The Under-Secretary, at about 11 o'clock at night, when dealing with the existing facilities, said :

"We must be clear about what training is available in the scheme ports. In 1987, there were 21 instructors and some £500,000 a year was spent on training ; this year there are 14 mobile instructors, working within the scheme ports, and there are no longer training centres. How much training does that amount to? In 1987, a total of 1,498 training weeks were given, and that provided--on average--less than half a week per trainee."

Of course, those training centres have long since ceased to exist. The Under-Secretary at a later stage said :

"Employers will need to ensure that their employees are properly trained. If they are not, the work will not get done."

The Under-Secretary further said :

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"Employers will be unable to run their businesses as successfully by operating with untrained people.

Therefore, I do not apologise for saying that after the scheme is repealed, it will be the employers' responsibility to ensure that proper training takes place."--[ Official Report, Standing Committee A, 2 May 1989 ; c. 213.]

That is the guts of the issue. The Government have repeatedly refused to give any indication of what arrangements will exist, if any, at national level following the abolition of the dock labour board. We believe that it would be very much against the interests of the industry if this national facility was dissipated, split up between the employers, or simply wiped out, no doubt through redundancy.

We ask the Minister to tell us precisely where the Government stand on the issue. Is it really their intention to destroy that national training facility? I am not suggesting that the body we are seeking to establish would have responsibility only for training in the scheme ports. Of course, the logic of the Bill is that the distinction between the scheme and non- scheme ports for all practical purposes will no longer exist. I should have thought that there would be a case for building on that national training facility and making it available to all the ports.

Some of the non-scheme ports, particularly the smaller ones, already make use of the NDLB training facilities. I admit that that accounts for only a very small proportion of the training provided by the NDLB. Nevertheless, it is significant that some of the non-scheme ports consider it to be an advantage to use the training facilities provided by the NDLB.

The amendment is a most constructive proposal. Instead of destroying a training facility and the experience of the training organisation--and that is what is really important--the Government should be prepared to accept the principle of a new national facility and organisation to take over the responsibility for training in scheme and also non-scheme ports.

Even this Government have accepted the principle that they have a role to play in training. It is common ground between the Labour party and the Government that this country's record on training falls a long way short of that of many of our competitors--and certainly short of that of many countries in the European Community. It should be a matter of concern for the Government, the Opposition, employers, trade unions and local authorities to try to improve the quality of training for the unemployed and, in this context, to improve the training for employed people to whom the vast bulk of the training to which I am referring is directed.

In the context of the Government's training policies as outlined in their document "Employment for the 1990s", the establishment of the Training Agency and arrangements for the training and enterprise councils, the Government should accept the principle that the public sector should play a part in trying to ensure that training takes place. The state should act as an enabler, or catalyst, in that respect.

It is indisputable that a national training scheme would benefit efficiency and health and safety in industry. We have had a great deal of discussion already in Committee about health and safety. We are all well aware that separate regulations apply to health and safety which cover scheme and non- scheme ports.

Undoubtedly docks are dangerous places. An important part of training is to ensure that dockers can

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operate the sophisticated and expensive equipment in the docks in a way which is safe for them and for their workmates.

It cannot be right to wipe out this training facility, which is such an asset to the industry. The same applies, although perhaps with less force, to the medical centres. I accept that there is scope for some rationalisation and for different provision. In some instances the medical facilities are some way from the ports and some of the centres have not been utilised of late to the extent that they were used in the past. However, the principle is still valid. The medical facilities should not be wiped out or handed over to the employers. They should be maintained and operated in a way that will benefit dockers and the industry generally.

It is remarkable that not even the staff in the training and medical facilities have any idea what is in store for them. Will the training facilities be wiped out? Will the staff be made compulsorily redundant? Is that the Government's intention? We have just had a debate about the compensation arrangements which might prevail for registered dockers. What about the compensation arrangements for training staff and all the other people involved with the national dock labour scheme?

The Government have said that we should not simply be concerned about compensation arrangements for registered dockers, but that we should also be concerned about compensation for other staff involved in the scheme. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Employment will tell us precisely what arrangements will apply for people involved in the training function of the NDLB. Many of those people have substantial commitments. We might argue that, because they must be mobile--some have moved from one part of the country to another and taken on large mortgages to act as training instructors--therefore they are as much in need of substantial compensation if they are to lose their jobs as any other group of workers.

We are not advocating redundancies. The talents of those people should be deployed within the framework of a new organisation for the benefit of the port industry. There is no disagreement between the Opposition and the Government with regard to efficiency, productivity and using new investment most effectively. Training is an essential element of all that. Against a background of the Government's intransigence since the publication of the White Paper, it would be sensible and an excellent development if the Government gave some sign that they were prepared to make some provision to follow the national dock labour scheme and maintain the training functions, medical and welfare facilities provided by the NDLB.

We have in mind a body which would involve the trade unions. We favour joint determination along the lines which exist in the NDLB, where the employers and the union are equally represented. We believe that the best can be obtained from training and from all the other functions if there is maximum representation from the work force working fully with employer representatives. That is the great strength of the present NDLB facilities. They have the support of the employers and the trade union, because the trade union is directly involved in the organisation which is ultimately responsible for the training facility, the NDLB.

We strongly advocate that there should be a national body to take over the training and medical functions and

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that that national body, whatever its details, should include equal participation of the employers and the union. It is in the interests of the docks that training should involve the maximum participation of the trade union.

There can be no dispute about the importance which trade unions attach to training. Most trade unions have separate training departments and are involved in providing training facilities to help their members obtain employment or, in other cases, to retrain and become more employable. The main responsibility lies with industry and with the Government. The trade unions have an excellent record on training and we want that to be encouraged. We should maintain the arrangements whereby there is co- determination and joint control of the training arrangements and medical facilities.

When we read about these issues in the British press, we might almost believe that the national dock labour scheme was unique to Britain and that it was an eccentric development. That is not the case. Many other advanced countries have found it necessary to have a scheme similar to the national dock labour scheme. France, Italy and Spain have schemes. They are not necessarily identical to our schemes, but it is amazing how many of those schemes include the principle of the register. They control employment in the docks with the aim of preventing casual labour and all that goes with it, including insecurity and exploitation.

We are not advocating something impractical or unreasonable, but simply seeking to make the best of the position that will exist post the enactment of the scheme. We, and the trade union, accept that the legislation will be enacted, and the debate is about the arrangements that will follow the national dock labour scheme. There must be national arrangements as well as local ones.

This evening, we want an end to stalling about what is to replace the national dock labour scheme. We want an end to the nonsense that is talked about everything being broken up and the issues being decided by individual ports. There is no way that some of the smaller ports, either within or without the scheme, will be able to run proper training schemes.

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The Government have an obligation to ensure that there is a national training scheme, which will be used not only by the major ports and employers, as at present, but will be available to the smaller ports and employers, which have no chance of operating their own training schemes. It would be unreasonable to leave their training facilities to the whim of the larger employers, with whom they are in competition.

Even under the terms of the Government's own approach to this matter and to maintaining and encouraging competition in the industry, there is an overwhelming need for a national training facility. The amendment is aimed to achieve that and I hope that the Government will see fit to accept the argument in principle.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Patrick Nicholls) : In the next few minutes I shall attempt to answethe substantial points made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang). With the leave of the House, I shall attempt to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, later in the debate to sum up and address hon. Members' contributions.

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The purpose of the Bill is to bring employment arrangements in scheme ports within the general legal framework which has evolved under successive Governments since the scheme's inception. Those developments include the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, which placed specific obligations on employers to make adequate provision for health, safety and welfare. The Act also provided for proper participation by trade unions, at national and local level, in ensuring adequate arrangements.

There are now also a range of training structures which industries may choose to participate in according to their own assessment of needs. Within that framework. It is clearly for employers and employees in the industry to decide what suits them best, as is the case in any other industry.

By contrast, the amendment would impose on former scheme ports a special national structure covering welfare, training and medical facilities. No case has been made for that structure, which does not exist in any other industry, either in Committee or today. The proposition which should be made is that what has to be done is special, not only to this industry, but to ports which were formerly within the scheme.

Mr. Strang : I made it clear that we believe that it would make sense for that national body to provide a training facility for all ports. However, the nature of the Bill is such that we can table an amendment that covers only ports within the scheme. If any such body were established, it should be extended to have responsibility for training throughout the industry as a whole.

Mr. Nicholls : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that matter. He worked on the supposition, which I do not accept, that it is only within some sort of overall national framework that the considerations with which he is concerned could be properly addressed.

That type of structure is unnecessary and will inhibit port employers' acceptance of full responsibility for their own training, health and welfare provision. It would also extend, quite unnecessarily, the transitional period, during which the board is under a duty to wind up its affairs, and the cost of an extension would obviously have to be borne by the taxpayer.

I do not understand the reluctance of the Opposition and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East to accept the normal health, safety and welfare provisions that already apply to non scheme-ports, and their belief that they are inapplicable to scheme ports. The structures that already apply in non-scheme ports are particularly comprehensive. The abolition of the scheme will not change the basis of health and safety provision which applies to all ports. The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 places an obligation to make proper health, safety and welfare provision on individual employers generally, and not on the board--certainly not on any other body established to take its place.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow) : If what the Minister says about the provision of such regulations in non-scheme ports is true, will he assist me on the re-emergence of casual dock work in my constituency of Port Glasgow? Will he instuct his officials to inspect casual dock work in the port of Port Glasgow to protect my casually employed constituents vis-a-vis their rights and regulations? Will he intervene in that way?

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Mr. Nicholls : I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern about casualism. A fear of casualism has run throughout this debate. It featured strongly in Committee. From what I have seen, I have no doubt that that almost inherited fear of the evils of casualism, as it existed at the turn of the century and thereafter, which runs through

Mr. Robert Hughes : It still exists.

Mr. Nicholls : I shall deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East, and if the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) wants to make an intervention other than from the sedentary position, I shall oblige him.

It is clear that the fear of casualism gravely concerns many dockers who protest against the abolition of this scheme. Often, Minister have to make forecasts about what will happen in the future if their views are correct. This case is different : we do not have to make some great leap into the dark because we do not know what will happen about casualism when the scheme is abolished because a port structure outside the scheme already exists in this country. The casualism rate there is no more than 6 per cent. Hon. Members may say that, even at 6 per cent., that is a bad business.

I am bound to say to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East--if I am incorrect I shall give way at once--that I know of no industrial action organised by the Transport and General Workers Union in non-scheme ports to protest at the casualism rate. Today's modern port industry has extremely valuable, expensive and sophisticated equipment that could not possibly be run on a casual basis, and well over 90 per cent. of employers who operate in scheme ports have made it clear that there will be no return to casual systems of work. Those factors mean that, for once, a Minister does not have to look into his crystal ball but can talk about what is actually happening in non- scheme ports. That should be a substantial reassurance, although I suspect that he will not think it is, to the hon. Gentleman.

Dr. Godman : I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time. I asked for his assistance in a matter concerning casual dock work, which began again in Port Glasgow before Christmas. Young unemployed men are being paid £2.50 per hour to work as casual dockers. I do not ask much from this Government, especially for my country of Scotland, and all I ask of the Minister and his colleagues is to request his officials to inspect the practice to assure me that my constituents, who have taken up the work because they are unemployed, are protected by the regulations of which he spoke about five minutes ago.

Mr. Nicholls : It may be that my memory is defective. The hon. Gentleman refers to practices that started before Christmas, and it is now summer. I cannot recall the hon. Gentleman writing to me about it. If he is telling me that scheme ports are now faced with the use of non-registered dockers, which, as the law presently stands, would be in breach of the criminal law, obviously such matters must be looked at.

However, perhaps the hon. Gentleman is making a different point : that events in his constituency show that casualism is about to take off. I accept that his is a genuine fear, but there is no evidence to support it. If it were

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realistic, it would be remarkable, to put it at its lowest, that the Transport and General Workers Union has not been protesting. Dr. Godman rose--

Mr. Nicholls : The hon. Gentleman is taking up his own time and that of his hon. Friends. I said that I would give way to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North, but I see that he is now shaking his head. It would probably be provocative of me to say that I had satisfied an Opposition Member, and I suspect that it would also be thoroughly untrue.

The Dock Regulations 1988, made under the 1974 Act, provide comprehensive, up-to-date and detailed provision specifically for dock work. Such detailed provision is unusual for a specific industry. It was proposed by the Health and Safety Commission, which, as I am sure the House does not need to be reminded, is a tripartite body including trade union representatives. The regulations cover welfare provision--for example, sanitary facilities and protective clothing--which the board currently supervises under the Docks and Harbours Act 1966. In some respects, notably in connection with protective clothing, they are more comprehensive than the earlier provisions.

The board's medical provision, which predates that of the National Health Service, makes special arrangements for registered dock workers which to a large extent now duplicate existing services. The present provision consists of 20 small medical centres serving 18 ports. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East has reminded us, they provide treatment both related and unrelated to the needs of the workplace. Since 1982, all employers have been under an obligation to make adequate provision for first aid, consistent with the risks and needs of the industry in which they operate and in accordance with first aid regulations made under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act.

Mr. Loyden : As the Minister will know--the point was raised a number times in Committee--the docks industry has particular problems connected with both safety and the provision of medical services : for instance, the distance from the dock of the nearest hospital. Past provision has taken into account the peculiar nature of the industry, and its virtual isolation from life in the city. Requirements have been established in response to real needs. I hope that the Minister is not forgetting that.

Mr. Nicholls : I am not forgetting it at all, but, although I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's evident concern, he makes the mistake of thinking that such problems are unique. He ignores the fact that non-scheme ports often operate with the same coastal facilities as scheme ports. They have grown up because of the need for unrestricted ports. The hon. Gentleman assumes that there is no pattern from which we can learn, and that it might be in the interests of employers not to make appropriate arrangements with the work force when the scheme is finally abolished. Employers in non-scheme ports have had to make arrangements appropriate to individual ports and work forces, and there is no reason to believe that the same will not happen in former scheme ports.

Clause 2 gives the board the opportunity to dispose of its assets, including its medical centres, in such a way as to encourage continued provision to meet the future needs of

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the industry and its legal requirements. It provides for local needs to be matched with local medical provision for all dock workers.

It must not be assumed that the establishment of a single body is the best way in which to meet the industry's training needs. It is not up to me to pass judgment on what arrangements are appropriate for each port, but the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East seemed to think that a national structure would be the only option, and I do not think that that case has been made.

Training must respond to the needs of individual firms, and it is up to employers to make arrangements for it, whether they do so individually or collectively. The work being done in a modern, capital-intensive port requires a highly skilled work force, and employers therefore have every incentive to make proper training arrangements.

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The abolition of the scheme's restrictions on the deployment of dock workers means that investment in training will produce an even greater return. Non-scheme ports manage to train to meet their skill needs without the imposition of a national body. In 1988, Felixstowe, which has its own training school, spent about £775,000 on training--rather more than the National Dock Labour Board spent on behalf of all the scheme ports put together. Many other non-scheme ports, notably those run by Sealink, have full-time training officers. The board's training activities now amount to a mobile force of about 20 training instructors, without any training centres.

The provision in clause 2 for the disposal of the board's assets provides every opportunity for the industry to take over such useful provision as exists. There is no reason to believe, judging by the performance of non- scheme ports, that former scheme ports will not take training extremely seriously.

The amendment gives no suggestion of where the funding of a replacement body would come from. Is it to come from a levy on the industry, once again placing a burden on employers, who would then have no control over the necessary allocation of resources? Or are financial arrangements of the transitional period to continue so that the new body is funded by sums voted by Parliament and paid by the taxpayer? Whatever the answer, the proposal is clearly unnecessary and unreasonable.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : A point that the Minister seems to miss is that discipline is provided by the existence of the scheme ports. What worries us is that, with the removal of the national training scheme provided by the scheme ports, that discipline will go. The Minister does not appreciate the significance of training in the docks or in any other industry. He describes training costs as a burden on the employer, but they are not a burden ; they are part of the investment that any respectable and self-seeking employer should be making. We want to ensure that the best employers follow the best practices.

Mr. Nicholls : It is thoroughly in keeping with the demonology of the Labour party to assume, as the hon. Gentleman has in his usual sincere and witty manner, that the only way in which employers can be obliged to train is through the use of a bit of discipline--a word that trips off

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the hon. Gentleman's tongue. In less formal surroundings, he would probably say that what employers need is a touch of the lash. That is what I think he has in mind.

It is curious that the hon. Gentleman cannot accept for a moment that naked self-interest, if nothing else, would make employers train. The hon. Gentleman obviously prefers the idea of a touch of the lash in connection with naked self-interest. The idea that employers would be prepared to commit millions of pounds' worth of equipment to a casual worker--if I may refer to a point made by his hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman)--or to commit it to someone with no proper training is absolute nonsense. The hon. Gentleman need not take it from me ; he can look at the record. I had to remind the House a few moments ago that more training is provided by one non-scheme port--Felixstowe--than by all the non-scheme ports. That is the best assurance that the hon. Gentleman could have that, in a modern port industry, employers desperately need trained staff.

The Bill provides for the board to wind itself up in a way that will give port employers and authorities every incentive to take over useful training and welfare facilities. The statutory requirements for health, safety and welfare which apply to all ports are comprehensive, but if there is a need for development it should be within the framework of general health and safety provisions. After abolition, scheme ports will have every incentive to make proper provision for their skill needs. There is no reason to assume that a national body would help the industry meet its training needs more effectively.

I refer finally to the point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East about possible redundancies of board staff who are not registered dock workers and who cannot look forward to the generous compensation scheme outlined in the previous debate. It would be wholly inappropriate for either the hon. Gentleman or myself to speculate on the level of redundancies, if any. However, I take his point that, logically, there could be redundancies. I understand that the board is considering proposals to enhance the voluntary severance payments that otherwise will be made on a contractual basis. Discussions on that aspect will continue.

I cannot accept that there is a case for the type of national body that the Opposition seek. I ask Opposition Members to accept not only my words-- though I am certain to do so on future occasions--but to look at the pattern of behaviour in non-scheme ports. That pattern, even more than my words and those of other Ministers, gives the lie to the Opposition's worst fears.

Mr. Loyden : The Government have failed to remove our doubts about how seriously they approach training matters. The point was made more than once in Committee that, in only two decades, the industry's practices and cargo handling techniques have been revolutionised, so that the modern docks industry bears no resemblance to that which existed before the war, shortly after the war, and even in the early 1960s. That transformation took place under the wing, and with the direct assistance, of the National Dock Labour Board. It was responsible for providing the training that transformed dockers from men who wore hooks in their belts and pushed hand bogeys on the dock estate to skilled workers who handle equipment having a customs value of between £250,000 and £750,000 per piece.

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That training embraced the operation of everything from the forklift truck to the gantry crane, and all the other mechanical operations, which are different from those used in any other industry and probably unique. A tugmaster loading a ro-ro vessel, for example, is worth watching. It is a demanding task that dock workers have been trained to carry out to great effect, and it is to their credit that they have been able to adapt.

Conservative Members have referred to the number of dock labour disputes. I remind the House that the record number of 427 disputes, of which 410 were official, was set before the establishment of the national dock labour scheme. Unofficial strikes were caused by the conditions prevailing in the industry before the scheme came into existence. It brought order where chaos existed. There has been a move away from traditional cargo handling methods to hi-tech operations such as containerisation, palletisation, ro- ro and bulk cargo handling. They have all been mastered by dock workers as a consequence of the good training provided by the National Dock Labour Board.

I put to the Minister the example of the small firm--the sweetheart of the Tory party, which it views as a cherished friend--employing 60 registered dock workers. How will such a company provide adequate training? There will be no legislation, other than that of a general nature that the Minister outlined, requiring employers to provide proper training. We are concerned about the quality of training that will follow in the wake of the scheme's abolition.

My mind is open, but I remain to be convinced that we have nothing to fear and that when the transitional period ends, the void that follows will be immediately filled by training schemes of the quality that the industry previously enjoyed. Neither am I convinced that the services needed by the industry will be retained. It is a dangerous industry in which to work. In Committee, I reported the death only a few weeks previously of a registered dock worker in the port of Liverpool ; his mate was taken to hospital seriously injured after an attempt to save his comrade after a load had broken from its swing and buried the docker under a weight of timber.

The dock industry presents many such hazards, which require specific medical provision. National Health Service facilities may be as far away as five miles. Before the present Government came to power, there was in existence almost on the dock road in Liverpool the Royal hospital, but that is now gone. The distance now between the docks and the nearest hospital is measured in miles rather than yards.

The Minister must accept that we are not weaving a fantasy about the docks industry. During debates on the national dock labour scheme, Conservative Members showed in the most naked way that they know little or nothing about the industry. That is the great danger. They are not prepared to move their minds away from the briefs that they are given and to listen to informed comment, take it on board, and act upon it. Certainly there is no evidence that the Minister has given proper thought and consideration to the points made both in Committee and on the Floor of the House.

I hope that even at this late stage the Minister will be able to persuade us that we are all doubting Thomases and that he has the best interests of dock workers in mind.

Mr. David Davis : The nub of the case made by my hon. Friend the Minister is that the evidence from non-scheme

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ports is that a special scheme of Government intervention in training would not be advantageous. Throughout the Committee stage and today, there have been either explicit or implicit claims of superiority for the training provided under the dock labour scheme. Ironically, there were claims also of a lack of training as a way of justifying ghosting, but I put that matter to one side.

The facts do not support either general or specific claims of superiority. The statistics show that in 1987, which is the last year for which comparative figures are available, about 33 per cent. of scheme employees underwent scheme training lasting an average of three days. In the nearest equivalent industry, transport and commercial, 40 per cent. of employees underwent 10 days of training per employee--roughly four times as much training.

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We have been accused of using the example of Felixstowe ad nauseam, but there was a good article on that port in the Sunday Times on 16 April this year from which I want to quote one extract. A young worker called Mark Green, who has just started work at Felixstowe, said :

"I may not seem to have much of a job now, but the training schemes at the port are great You can work your way up and win whatever responsibility you want."

He went on to speak about how he wanted to become a driver of one of the major cranes.

We have been accused, with some substance, of using Felixstowe as an argument. However, as my hon. Friend the Minister said, there is more training going on there than in the rest of the scheme ports put together. Some members of the Committee--I am glad to say that this has not happened today--focused their attack on what they called cowboy operators. Nobody defined that term. We were left to guess whether it described a pioneering spirit of enterprise or something rather less flattering. I suspect that the latter is the case. They were put forward as an explanation of how some of the smaller ports obtained business at the expense of the larger scheme ports. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who unfortunately is not with us today, attributed the loss of trade from scheme ports to non -scheme ports to the cowboy operators--the low-cost operators--and he made specific allegations about training.

I felt that it was incumbent on me to check the facts. Some of the work was done for us in Committee by my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport. He checked one of the smaller port operators, a company called Trent Wharfage. He described how that private operator took on unskilled personnel and trained them to operate major pieces of port equipment, such as those described by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden), either by in-house training or through contract training outside.

That did not seem to be enough evidence, so I telephoned small port employers in the Humber area. The market share of Humber traffic of those smaller ports grew from 15 per cent. to 21 per cent. at the expense of scheme ports in just five years. They did that against the odds. Conditions were difficult. They had difficult rivers and locations on small, poor roads, so their success was the result of something other than geographic location.

I called two small ports at Selby and Howden to get an idea of what they did on training. I gave no warning that I intended to call but in one case a training manager was

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in the general manager's office when I rang. It says something that a small operation employing 30 to 40 people has a training manager. I was told a number of things. First, the ports were trade unionised and had TGWU representation, with proper contract terms. I asked about safety and skill training and, specifically, about training in the use of cranes, vehicles, forklifts and so on. It became apparent that they had schemes, in-house and contract, with training boards outside in the construction and road transport industries for each of those areas.

Those ports managers were spontaneously aware of the new docks regulations. They knew that several years of training was required for the use of heavy cranes. They knew that the code of practice required forklift driver certification. That was not the response of cowboy operators, in the sense that that term was used by Opposition Members.

The point that came across clearly was more a matter of common sense, which the hon. Member for Garston will understand. It was not in the interests of such ports to allow untrained men to use highly expensive and heavy equipment of the type commonly bought today--the sort of equipment that the hon. Gentleman described.

I was told that a 90-tonne crane cost £500,000. For a man to use that crane he has to be sent away for two weeks' intensive training at a cost of £500, plus his salary. Damage can be done by the untrained use of such equipment. No one in his right mind would skimp £500 and risk £500,000. I am putting entirely on one side the sort of accidents that could occur from misuse, such as the hon. Gentleman described. No one with any sense of responsibility, or even self-interest, would not train such operators. I shall not waste time now, but I could give further examples, such as the £125,000 forklift truck.

There are three components of a training decision in the docks industry. The first, rightly, is safety. Any responsible manager would put that at the top of his priorities, but even if he did not, health and safety at work regulations and the specific docks regulations of 1988 which came into effect on 1 January this year would ensure safety. Therefore, there is already a safety net. On skills, the economic argument that I have just explained is ovrwhelming from the point of view of the individual employer, whether enormous like Felixstowe or tiny link Howden.

Finally, there is the need to have the money available. I agree with the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). People do not need to be forced to do something that is in their own interests, but they need money for investment.

Safety, skils and money are the three components of a training decision. The national dock labour scheme does nothing to add to the regulations on safety. It does nothing to enhance the importance of skills, because it reduces the productivity of the equipment and it positively undermines prosperity. Therefore, it is not tenable to say that the scheme in any way helps training in Britain.

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