Orders of the Day — Ports (Financial Assistance) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:40 pm on 25th March 1981.

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Photo of Mr Tony Marlow Mr Tony Marlow , Northampton North 9:40 pm, 25th March 1981

I enter the debate with a certain amount of temerity and timidity—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—as is usually the case, surrounded as I am by so many experts on ports and recognising the fact that there are no ports in Northampton. However, Northampton does have an interest, in that the people there must pick up the tab for this measure, as do others in non-port constituencies.

Every Government do not entirely succeed in what they are trying to do. If this Government have not succeeded it is because their main fault has been an inability to cut public expenditure. That has caused taxes to be higher than we would otherwise need, and interest rates to be above those that we would otherwise need. It has placed a great burden on industry and has been the cause of the unemployment from which we are currently suffering.

My right hon. Friend is asking us to provide another £87 million, which I believe amounts to £5 for every family in the country. On other occasions, we have been asked for £5, £10, £20 or £30. To what end is every family being asked to contribute £5 tonight? It is to bail out the most notorious industry that this country has ever known. It has a record of restrictive practices and overmanning. Eight men are doing a job which could be done by two. It has a record of nepotism that is second to none. It is an industry with a history of extortionate practices which would make the Mafia green with envy.

If my right hon. Friend is asking the House for this tranche of Danegeld tonight he should have the most compelling reasons for so doing. He has told us that without this money the ports of London and Liverpool would have no future. He owes the House a fuller explanation. Let us suppose that the money was not forthcoming. Would the sea disappear? Would the Mersey and the Thames dry up? Would the wharves fall into the docks? Would the cranes march down the quayside and disappear? Would the workers and their skills evaporate into the mists of the night?

As my right hon. Friend knows, other industries have suffered financial crises. They have gone into receivership or liquidation. But people have bought the assets, got hold of the work force and have come back leaner, more efficient and more effective. As a result, those firms have been better places in which to work. My right hon. Friend should explain why that is not an option that we can pursue in this case.

My right hon. Friend also said that the ports were suffering from a financial crisis. Why? I accept that part of the reason may arise from the recession. Although I do not have the same experience of the port industry as other hon. Members, I have in past jobs been involved with that industry. On one occasion I tried to negotiate the establishment of a grain-handling facility in one of our major ports. We wanted to employ our own men, but were told that it was not possible. When we eventually made the calculation we discovered that employing dock labour would cost eight times more than employing our own men.

I accept that there is a recession. However, I believe that a far greater reason for the crisis in the dock industry is overmanning, greed and restrictive practices. My right hon. Friend is asking my constituents to pick up the tab for those bad habits and the practices of the past.

Other businesses and industries face financial crises. Other businesses have records of high productivity, of moderation, of good labour relations and of co-operation. Other industries are suffering from a high pound—based on the value of our North Sea oil—and have to compete, without any tariffs or controls, with other European countries that do not have such high currencies. Other businesses have these temporary problems. If they were provided with some of this money they could survive and become much stronger.

Opposition Members have spoken about injustice. The overriding injustice of this measure is that if someone happens to have his hand in the Government's back pocket he will get what he wants. If someone works for a nationalised industry or for a port, the Government will cough up. If someone works for private industry he will get hardly a penny.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) said, the worse one's behaviour the better the prize to be picked up. That is one hell of a moral to give to the nation.

I sincerely appreciate the problems that my right hon. Friend and my hon. and learned Friend have with the national dock labour scheme. I appreciate that they inherited a situation that had been in being for some time. They have a difficult job to do. But why do they propose to give financial aid without attaching any strings? Perhaps I am being naive again, but why do we not get rid of an archaic system—unique save for the Civil Service—in which a registered docker has a job for life? Instead, why do we not try to give dockers a stake in their ports and in their industry so that they will wish to compete—port with port—and so that they will receive increasing benefits from their increased efficiency? That would be better than the situation that has existed for generations, whereby there has been a powerful effort to maintain the maximum number of jobs, no matter what the cost to the community.

The measure is entirely negative and against the interests of my constituents who will have to pay for it. If there is a vote on the measure I shall have to oppose it.