Orders of the Day — Emergency Powers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th July 1970.

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Photo of Mrs Barbara Castle Mrs Barbara Castle , Blackburn 12:00 am, 20th July 1970

I share my hon. Friend's view that the Government's behaviour is rather extraordinary. It does not seem to be the Government's day. This abrasive, new style of efficient organisation does not yet seem to have penetrated into the conduct of the business of the House. [Interruption.] I suggest that we get on. We have a lot of points to cover. I am sure that my hon. Friends behind me will have a chance of developing the points which they are trying to make through me, and I would far rather that they had time to make them direct to the Government, who must be held accountable to answer them.

I hope that the Government will be made accountable this afternoon, because we have made it clear that we did not wish today to follow the procedure which was followed in 1966. We wished to have two separate debates. We wished the first Motion to be moved and discussed separately. We were told by the Home Secretary that he would not speak to that Motion. He then spoke to the second Motion, which has not yet been moved, and he said that the Attorney-General would answer any points that we raised on the second Motion. The Attorney-General, however, is not even here to hear what is said. It is extraordinary behaviour by the Government.

I wanted to make it clear at the outset that where a Government have taken the serious step of declaring an emergency and taking emergency powers, they must be assumed to have come to the conclusion that those powers were necessary to preserve the essential life of the community. As none of us in the House would wish to jeopardise the essential needs of the community, we shall not challenge the Government's decisions today in the Division Lobby. None the less, a decision to declare an emergency and to take emergency powers is a very serious decision indeed, and it is not to be embarked on lightly, just as a national dock strike is not to be embarked on lightly. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) said last Thursday, emergency Regulations give an all-embracing grip by the State on every citizen."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th July, 1970; Vol. 803, c. 1736.] Moreover, even with the help of these emergency powers the Government are not going to be able to prevent this strike from doing serious damage to the economic life of the community.

Therefore, it seemed to us entirely right that we should give the Government this afternoon the chance to explain how and why it is that we have drifted into the first official national dock strike since 1926 and to ask the Government how they see both the strike and the emergency being brought to an end, because we can all have our searching examination of the Regulations in detail, we can all make our serious speeches about wanting to preserve the life of the community in the emergency, but the simple fact is that emergency powers in themselves do not solve anything, and, in the end, strikes can be settled in one way only, and that is, round the negotiating table.

What alarms us this afternoon is, that there was a negotiating table, and it seemed at one point as if a solution to the threatened strike was going to be found, and certainly the union involved was anxious for a settlement to be found, but because the solution on which so many hopes had been pinned was rejected by the dockers' committee by a small—a very small—majority, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Mitcham (Mr. R. Carr) has kept on stressing to us, because that solution was rejected by a small majority, we are now in a situation in which negotiations have come to a full stop. They have come to a full stop first and foremost, because the employers have ruled out one subject of discussion entirely, and that is one subject in which the other party is interested. In other words, the employers have said, "We will not discuss the union's claim". Secondly, because the employers have taken what we can only call the high-handed and Victorian attitude of saying, "Oh, you are naughty boys, and we refuse to talk while the strike goes on". I would suggest that it must be unique in the history of these emergency situations for the Government to come down to this House and say, "There is a national crisis because the talks have stopped" when the union concerned is pleading to be allowed to continue those talks.

Indeed, anybody who has read, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Mitcham has read many times, the statement issued by the Transport and General Workers' Union on 16th July will know that we are conducting a debate this afternoon about the existence of a national emergency against a background such as there can never have been before in a similar situation, against a background, for instance, of the union saying, The Transport and General Workers' Union believes that the national dock strike could be settled within days, perhaps hours, if the employers will open negotiations. And yet the Home Secretary comes down here and asks us to take it on the nod that there is a national emergency. He does not even want to discuss for a moment whether the emergency might have been avoidable. He does not give any indication of the Government's expectation of how long it will last—and a national dock strike strikes at the very life of the nation. He has given us no indication how long the Government think it will last, he has given us no glimmer of a clue how the Government think that the emergency can be brought to an end, and here we have the union which is involved saying that it believes that the dock strike could be settled within days or perhaps hours if the employers opened negotiations.

It goes on to say that it does not want this strike to last a moment longer than it need". It goes on to say: It is quite untrue, and harmful to suggest that this claim represents an attempt to escalate piece-work prices. The union says this without qualification, and if there is any doubt about it, then the place to resolve the matter is over the negotiating table now. Without delay. Therefore, I think we have a right as a House, without wanting to enter into the rights or wrongs of the claim or the counter-offer put forward by the other side, to echo the words of the Transport and General Workers' Union that if its arguments are contested, then the place to find out what are the facts is round the negotiating table.