Mersey Docks and Harbour Board

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st December 1970.

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Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton 12:00 am, 1st December 1970

I beg to move, That this House do now adjourn.

The whole House will agree that I am in some difficulty in the sense that the speech which I intended to make will obviously be affected to some extent by this afternoon's Ruling. However, despite this slight difficulty, I shall do my best to put my case, bearing in mind the point which you have made, Mr. Speaker.

The question of the future of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board has been concerning Merseyside Members for some time. We realised that the Board was moving into a difficult situation. On 14th July, when we discussed the Amendment to the Ports Bill, I pointed out that the measures which were being taken could only be interim measures for Merseyside.

It is recognised that the management of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board has not been the most efficient management in the world. I want to put that on record in case any hon. Gentlemen are of the opinion that I and my colleagues are defending every action of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board management. That is not the point of this debate. There is no argument about the reorganisation of the Board; this may well be an important step forward, and I believe that the Board had to be reorganised.

I draw to the attention of the House the differing attitudes adopted on the one hand by the Government and on the other hand by the Labour Government when they were in power. The Merseyside docks, the Merseyside people and the whole future economy of Merseyside are being thrown into a state of uncertainty by the Government's action. At Birkenhead, across the river from Liverpool, when the future of the shipbuilding company Cammell Laird was at stake, when the workers were concerned about their employment and the future of the shipyard, the then Labour Government acted completely responsibly. They removed the fear from the minds of the workers, they took the matter to the I.R.C., they solved the problem and reorganised the Board in the process of doing so. The result was that those who worked at Cammell Laird in Liverpool and Birkenhead felt that they had been rescued by the action of the Labour Government.

What do the workers in Liverpool feel now? We are told that by 1972 the south end of the docks will be closed. The new chairman said only yesterday that the port will be at a lower gear, whatever that means. How many redundancies will there be? What guarantee can the Government give that those redundant workers will find employment in an area which already has far too high a level of unemployment? No wonder there is fear and uncertainty amongst dock workers in Liverpool. No wonder the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions is making it plain that it is not prepared to accept any redundancies and will fight the Government on this question.

There is a different way of dealing with this. The Government should have done what the Labour Government did for Cammell Laird. I do not think that the putting in of a receiver will inspire the people of Merseyside with any great confidence. I will not get involved in whether it is an official receiver, an unofficial receiver or any other sort of receiver. How will the people on Merseyside feel about the putting in of a receiver to perform the Government's so-called rescue operation, when all that was required was £10 million to overcome the immediate financial crisis? I am not saying that that would have solved the problem; there needs to be better management and greater efficiency.

No doubt we shall hear a lot about the industry standing on its own two feet and the joys of private enterprise. The Mersey Docks and Harbour Board is composed of members of companies in all sorts of local private enterprise businesses. It is strange that, in spite of the joy of private enterprise, these people could not run the Board efficiently. Why should a new form of private enterprise run it any more efficiently?

Our answer to this problem was to bring ports under public ownership. We said that a nationally efficient docks industry could be achieved only by bringing the industry under public ownership. But the Government are not even prepared to go half way. They say, "We reject public ownership; it will not work". [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] That is right. They are all nodding their little, stupid heads. It has not worked under private enterprise, but it will work under public ownership, so why not go half way? Why not do as the European ports do? Why not pay subsidies to our ports so that they can compete with European ports which are subsidised by central and local government?

In January, 1970, Touche Ross and Company made a report to the National Ports Council. The terms of reference were: To determine whether the Continental ports of Dunkirk, Antwerp, Rotterdam and Hamburg have any special advantages relating to costs which would enable the level of comparable port charges to be lower in the Continental ports than in the United Kingdom ports. To distinguish natural advantages from man-made advantages. To establish the effect of applying the man-made advantages of the Continental ports to the United Kingdom ports of Liverpool, London and Southampton. The main conclusions of the report were: From our investigations we have reached the conclusion that the four Continental ports we studied have a major advantage over the three United Kingdom ports. They receive massive financial aid from central and local government who regard the ports as a vital part of their overall economy rather than as commercial enterprises in their own right. If the United Kingdom ports had received aid on a similar basis it would enable them to reduce port charges substantially.In addition to financial aid, all Continental ports receive benefits from central and local government in the form of services provided free, which United Kingdom ports have to pay for. Examples are dredging in the river, and police. I would commend that suggestion to the House and particularly to hon. Gentlemen opposite, because the ports in Continental countries with which we have to compete are sustained by their Governments on a private enterprise basis. Hon. Gentlemen opposite are so bigoted, so ridiculous in their attitude to standing on one's own feet, that they cannot see that if as a nation we are to compete we have to sustain our ports in the same way as such ports are sustained in other countries.

It is relevant to point out that in Liverpool the costs of dredging in one year amounted to £1,380,000; it cost over £500,000 to police the area. Liverpool pays enormous rates which amount to almost £500,000. These costs do not apply to the Continental ports. But hon. Gentlemen are not proposing that these ports should be sustained. Instead, they propose that the ports should merely sell off their assets.

What are those assets? One-third of the port is likely to be closed, and we already knew that there was to be a partial closure over an extended period. However, I hope that this will not happen too quickly because some of the berths at the south end of the docks are valuable and can be used for many years to come. The Harrison Line and the grain silo, which is one of the best in the country, are also in the south end of the docks and if they were closed it would be a most serious economic blow to Merseyside's future.

I am talking from experience. For many years I was the senior shop steward of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, and I know those docks like the back of my hand—much more than any hon. Gentlemen opposite know them, including the Conservative Members from Merseyside—though not my hon. Friend from Liverpool, Kirkdale (Mr. Dunn), who worked with me at the Board.

The Bill that is now before the House has been forced upon us as part of the plans for reorganisation. The Conservative Party is always deeply concerned about the poor old widow who cannot manage on the pittance she receives and about the small investor. Hon. Gentlemen have a right to be concerned about the small investor, especially if in the past he has invested in the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. Clause 5 of the Bill proposes that the repayment of bonds be postponed for two years. It is bad enough if people are not to get their money for two years, but the Clause then says that the value of the same bonds will be reduced by 30 per cent. Then it goes on to say—and this is the wickedest part of all—that the amount of any annuity is to be reduced by 30 per cent. The poor old widow living on her annuity will find that it is 30 per cent. lower than it has been in the past. It is a shameful situation, and when I said that the Government were abdicating their responsibilities I meant it. The Government have a responsibility to the investors, to the people of Merseyside, to the workers of Merseyside and to the country as a whole. The record of the present Government on this matter is shameful.

I believe that the answer to the problem, as we said before the General Election, is that the ports should be brought into public ownership. If we are ever to get an efficient national system, then public ownership is the answer. In the meantime, I wish to urge two courses on the Government. First, that they should reconsider their action and, even at this late hour, should be prepared to ensure that the money for the bridging action is forthcoming. I would accept the rest of it as a temporary measure, but something else is required as well. People need to know what has really happened. Therefore, we require a searching public inquiry into the whole situation. The Liverpool Labour Party, the Liverpool trade unions and many other organisations on Merseyside have been asking for such an inquiry for some time. This is a sound and sensible proposition. I hope the Government, even at this twelfth hour, will be prepared to look again at the whole issue and to put themselves in a proper position with the people of Merseyside by carrying out the suggestions that I have put forward this afternoon.