I am grateful for this opportunity to debate the national dock labour scheme. I am particularly glad to see so many of my right hon. and hon. Friends present in the Chamber, because over 200 of them, as the Patronage Secretary will have observed, have signed early-day motion 275.
In initiating the debate, I have three purposes. First, I want to put forward the case for abolishing this scheme in its entirety. Secondly, I want to argue the potential that will flow from abolition for job creation, urban regeneration and fairer competition between all the ports of the United Kingdom. Thirdly, I want to explore the position of my hon. Friend the Minister and his Department with regard to the development of Government policy on the national dock labour scheme.
The case for abolition should hardly require a speech from me in the ninth year of a Conservative Government. Since 1946, the dock labour scheme has been widely criticised. First, it is monopolistic—I thought that we were against monopolies. Registered dock work, once classified, must be done by registered dock workers. It is a criminal offence to employ any other person to do it.
Secondly, the dock labour scheme, which was drawn up in 1946, dates from an era when there were not the measures of employment protection that we have today, and when there were problems with casual labour and instant dismissal.
Thirdly, it is discriminatory. It distinguishes between different classes of workers in an invidious way. How many of my hon. Friends realise that in many ports there are more people employed by the ports who are not registered dock workers than who are? Yet the minority enjoy special privileges with regard to discipline, job security and employment protection, thus causing resentment and envy. It is an entirely invidious distinction between different classes of workers.
Fourthly, and fundamentally, the dock labour scheme is anti-business. It prevents ports from deploying their manpower in the most economic and efficient way. It prevents ports from diversifying into other activities, which means that management cannot manage. The ultimate decisions about the allocation of resources are left to the local joint dock labour boards.
I should like to give an example of the problems involved from the port of Leith in Scotland, where the Transport and General Workers Union is claiming that the positioning and manoeuvring of certain grain conveyors, troughs and ramps should be dock work. One might say that it is entitled to bid for that work, but it is other people's work. The dispute arises from the folding of a previous firm of stevedores. That union is trying to take work for itself away from other people. The stevedores who previously did that work will no longer be able to do so if that claim succeeds. The average age of a registered dock worker in the port of Leith is 53 and his average wage is £12,000 a year.
If that example does not impress my hon. Friends, I shall quote the events of last weekend in Boston, Lincolnshire, where registered dock workers — a registered dock worker in Boston earns £25,000 per year—refused an offer of £450 per man for a two-day cargo unloading job, a subsequent offer of £600 and a final offer from the owner of the wharf of £1,200. The trade union official in Boston explained why they did not want to earn £1,200 for two days work. He said, "We wanted a proper hourly rate." We know what that means — he wanted the ship tied up for three, four or five weeks so that they could earn as much money as possible.
On Sunday, that ship left that port and was unloaded at Dover, which is a non-scheme port. That is absurd, and one of the principal reasons why we should abolish this scheme is the potential that abolition has for creating new jobs. The ports say that, once they are freed of this scheme, they will he recruiting again. Tees and Hartlepool port authority, which is not in an area of high employment growth, would recruit 20 men a year for the next 10 years without the restrictions of a registered dock labour scheme.
The dock labour scheme is not only destroying jobs—my goodness, it has destroyed jobs—but is preventing new jobs being created. We are entitled to ask the Labour party whether it thinks it is morally right for a scheme to pay a man £350 or £400 a week for not unloading nonexistent ships, thereby destroying other jobs that might be created? If that argument is not accepted by the Opposition, they should look at the non-scheme ports and see how their share of the market has risen from some 8 per cent. in 1965 to some 30 per cent. in 1986 and that they now employ some 4,000 men in dock work.
The second great benefit of abolishing the scheme would be the potential growth in areas of very high unemployment and the urban regeneration that would result. Some two thirds of the scheme ports are in assisted areas in Scotland, the north-east, the north-west and Wales. They are riverside areas, areas of urban decay and areas into which we are trying to attract new businesses.
If scheme ports receive inquiries from companies that want to set up some manufacturing, assembly or warehouse activities on a renewed quayside inside the port, the companies suddenly learn that such activities could well be classified as registered dock work and they instantly go away. There are some 20,000 acres of prime industrial land inside scheme port areas that are crying out for regeneration and business renewal.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the paradox that in some of those areas where there is urban devastation, we have one set of laws which removes all restrictions from enterprises setting up within them because they are enterprise zones, yet at the same time, cheek by jowl with that, enterprise is being snuffed out in zones under the dock labour scheme?
That is a very powerful reinforcement of my argument. There are some 20,000 acres of prime industrial land in the scheme ports. That is a huge amount of land waiting for development. It is equivalent to some 300 Canary wharves—if I can put it in those terms—waiting for development, trying to attract new businesses and hoping to create new jobs.
The final effect of abolishing the scheme would be to establish much fairer competition between our ports. How can it be right for those ports involved in the scheme in the north of England to be expected to compete with ports such as Dover and Felixstowe in the south which are not in the scheme? How can the scheme ports possibly hope to compete on an equal basis with ports in the south and along the south-east coast?
Taking the hon. Gentleman back to the point he made about the extension of registration in the ports, when other industries take over, is he not aware that a free port has been developed in Liverpool and none of that work is registered work? As for the registered dock workers, in the port of Liverpool, from the mid-1960s to the present day, the reduction in RDWs has been from around 12,000 to 15,000 at that time, clown to less than 2,000 at present. That makes a complete nonsense of his argument about protectionism in the national dock labour scheme.
That proves my point—that not only is the scheme non-job creating, but it has not been efficient in protecting the jobs which have been lost anyway. Those jobs have not been replaced by the new jobs that we should be attracting to those riverside and port areas. I hope that I have made my case for the potential that should arise from abolishing the scheme.
I turn with some reluctance to the position of Ministers in this matter. The case for abolishing the dock labour scheme is so overwhelming that the inertia of my hon. and right hon. Friends is all the more puzzling. In all fairness, I should exempt my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Employment from that criticism. I know that he at least understands the case against monopolies, even if he is not prepared to do anything about it. At least he is aware that he is running a scheme that discriminates between different classes of workers, even if he is not prepared to end that discrimination.
I know that my hon. Friend understands how the dock labour scheme restricts job creation, even though he works for a Department that is supposed to be stimulating job creation. I know that he understands the extent to which business in the riverside areas of the north is being blighted, although he and his Department are supposed to be playing their part in the inner-city initiative.
I also know that my hon. Friend is a student of history and that he is aware that some of his Conservative predecessors failed to remove this blight from our ports. I know that he has no wish to see his silence interpreted as some kind of conspiratorial agreement so that, after Aldington-Jones, we are not going to have Connolly-Nicholls enshrined in our history as some conspiracy of inaction to rid us of that scheme.
I have to say to my hon. Friend that there could be two explanations for the inertia of his Department It is possible that the Minister thinks that this is a minor matter and that, as there are now only 10,000 dock workers, it is not the problem that it once was. I hope that I have argued that, not only is it a very serious problem, a major restriction on those scheme ports, but it is blighting the future development of our ports.
Secondly, it is possible that my hon. Friend thinks that the problem will disappear because the registered dock workers are aging. The average age of a registered dock worker is 47, but that does not mean that the problem will disappear. Sooner or later, the scheme ports will have to start recruiting. They will have no option but to start recruiting younger registered dock workers and to continue all the monopolistic practices of the dock labour scheme to which I have referred.
I must urge my hon. Friend to re-table the future of the scheme with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and to go back to his ministerial colleagues in other Departments such as the Department of Transport, which is trying to promote fairer competition among our ports and to ensure that all ports are free fairly to compete against each other. He should go back to the Department of Trade and Industry, which is trying to stimulate urban regeneration and attract fresh industry to our urban areas and which is committed to lifting such burdens on business as the dock labour scheme represents.
I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to convince all his ministerial colleagues of the potential for stimulating fresh employment in those ports if the scheme were finally lifted.
First, I should refer the hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) to the reasons why the National Dock Labour Board was introduced in the first place. That happened long before the hon. Gentleman came to the House, and probably long before he knew anything about the docks industry.
The hon. Gentleman knows the history of the docks and he will be aware that the docks used to be a labour-intensive industry. It employed casual labour, indeed sweated labour. There was no organisation and there was exploition of the highest level. Dock workers and their families lived in abject poverty in every port in the United Kingdom.
It was not until Ernie Bevin examined the whole question of the dock workers and the port industry in general that some order was brought to the chaos that existed in the docks industry. The docks have gone through several transitions and changes in the way in which ships are loaded and unloaded and there has been a dramatic change in the system of loading ships. All those changes took place in negotiations and modernisation committees in every port and have been accepted by dock workers. That is why there are fewer than 2,000 registered dock workers in the Liverpool docks today, compared to 10,000 to 12,000 in the late 1960s.
There has been co-operation from registered dock workers. It is a fallacy to suggest that the development of the non-scheme ports has been responsible for the decline in the scheme ports. The development of the non-scheme ports in natural deep-water berths was a consequence of the changes in trade with Europe, as opposed to the rest of the world. Those ports were seized on as an opportunity to move trade away.
The hon. Member for Darlington paid no regard, apart from a passing comment, to areas of decline such as the north and north-west. In my area, the entire local economy was port-orientated. Nearly all the industries were adjacent to and related to the docks. Now those jobs have gone, and we have suffered from mass unemployment ever since. Although there has been no restriction on the movement of new industries into those areas, and enterprise zones and free ports have been developed in Liverpool, employment in the port transport industry is still in decline.
It is typical of Conservative Members to argue purely on the basis of competition, and to ignore the social consequences of what has been happening. We should be grateful to those who had the vision to bring in the National Dock Labour Board. They brought order where there was chaos; humanity where it was lacking; dignity where it did not exist. They brought a decent life to men who worked hard to make their contribution to the wealth of the nation. Many Conservative Members had nothing to do with that.
When Conservative Members condemn schemes such as this, they do so on a single basis: they hate them and want them removed because they gave protection, for the first time, to workers. For the first time in history, the working class of this country was protected by law, and that really galls Conservative Members. They approve of protection for the City and for big business, but it is another matter when it comes to protecting working-class men against the hyper-exploitation that was a centre of their casual labour, and ending a system of hiring that treated them worse than animals. Men were herded into a pen like Cattle, and threw their books in, hoping that they would get them back along with work. That is the system that ended with the National Dock Labour Board.
I am not arguing that there will be a requirement for such a board for ever and a day, but I can see no reason for dismantling it at this stage. If it is to be ended, it should be ended after negotiation with the trade unions involved. I hope that the Minister can assure us that, whatever the future of the board, a decision will be made not in the House, but in full consultation with the industry.
We have seen a blatant example of the nausea of Conservative Members when they see protection for workers. Tonight, the hon. Member for Darlington has been clearly seen as an example of Toryism at its worst. I am sure that dock workers throughout the country will recognise the consideration of the Conservative party for the mass of working people in this country.
We have just been treated by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) to a highly emotional history lesson on the national dock labour scheme. In my view, this historic House should be concerned not with preserving men in history books, but with the employment of those who now work in the docks, and who will do so in the future.
I was the hon. Member who tabled early-day motion 275. I did so because of my concern over the wharves and riverside in my constituency. I was somewhat surprised at the rapid upswell of support in the House: 209 of my colleagues supported the motion, which amounts to the highest support among Conservative Members that an early-day motion has received in this Parliament.
That upswell of support is no accident. We in the Conservative party are concerned with developing the assisted areas, and it is no coincidence that the scheme ports by and large fall within those areas. There is an odd combination at present: the dock scheme, which is killing jobs and stunting development, is slap bang in the areas about which we are most concerned.
I come from a borough that is not an assisted area. It is in the so-called plush south-east. Thirty years ago, Gravesham had a maritime and shipping tradition in Gravesend and Northfleet, but today our waterfront is known for inactive wharves, dereliction and unemployment that was until recently the highest in Kent. I have visited the wharves up and down the River Thames in my constituency, and time and again it was the same old story: they move only their own goods to avoid the conditions of the dock labour scheme. A large amount of business could come through if only that did not involve the application of the scheme in all its worst aspects.
Those wharves have done their sums. They know that they cannot do the business because of the cost, the inflexibility and the lack of control over the direct work force that would arise—and that is not to mention the levy payable on the scheme. They know that business is not viable under such conditions, so they do not bid for it, so new jobs do not come to my borough of Gravesham.
Who exactly are the beneficiaries of the national dock labour scheme? They are the non-scheme ports, and, far worse, Rotterdam, Antwerp and other major continental ports. The dock labour scheme is a killer of British jobs, and a developer of jobs on the continent. A company that used to unload bulk goods at a local wharf in my constituency found that, by unloading the very same goods at a continental port and then bringing them over to the south-east of England, it could exactly halve its costs. Moreover, the speed at which the ships could be turned round meant savings of thousands of pounds—or francs, or guilders—which made a major impact on business.
What was the consequence? Yet another wharf in my constituency went to the wall. What happened to the people who worked there? The 55 registered dockers all marched to Tilbury to go on the payroll there—thus compounding the problems of Tilbury, which is itself closing docks because it cannot compete for business. Twenty-seven of my local people who were the second-class workers of that wharf went straight on the dole.
The result of the scheme is a tragedy. We know that there is more business, but we cannot get it, yet that is at the very time that Kent county council is opening up our waterfronts with brand new roads through the Thames-side industrial route. We could have thriving wharves, with much heavy goods traffic coming off the major roads through the south-east of England.
The scheme is iniquitous. It has already cost British industry more than £450 million. It has done for dockers' jobs. In 1947, in the golden years of which the hon. Member for Garston spoke, Britain had 73,000 dockers. This magnificent scheme has worked its will and there are fewer than 10,000 registered dockers today—quite a success. Elderly men, who will be gone in 10 or 20 years, are left in the industry. Nothing of our dock industry will be left if it is allowed to continue to wither.
The consequence for those who work in the docks is a class structure. The upper class consists of those members of the Transport and General Workers Union docks section, who get all the best conditions and arrangements. The second-class citizens in the docks are also members of the TGWU. They resent what the docks section gets away with.
Let me give an example of another wharf in my constituency which considered starting up. It held discussions with the TGWU clocks section, but it was told that if it went ahead the workers would have to be sacked and cleared away. The workers who would be slung on the dole are fellow members of the TGWU who do not happen to be the princes of that particular section.
We must set our docks free. We need to deal fairly with the 10,000 dockers remaining in the scheme, either by making a settlement that guarantees them a job for the remainder of their working lives—I mean a job, not a skive — or a one-off compensation payment to individuals after which they can compete for jobs like anybody else, in my borough, Liverpool or anywhere else.
The Government should have the courage of their convictions and tell the port employers and the union that it is now time to negotiate the abolition of the scheme. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will he earning the title of St. Patrick of Teignbridge by slaying this particular dinosaur.
I hope that the Minister will continue to resist the pressures that are being brought upon him by whatever number of hon. Members. The hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) said that he was backed by 200 Conservative Members. I am glad to see that quite a number of them have evaporated and I hope that all the rest of them will lose their enthusiasm for the proposition as time goes on.
It is interesting when Tories come before the House and say that we should forget the history of the subject. It is natural that they should do so. With some honourable exceptions, most Tories resisted any attempt to introduce any form of proper control over the docks and industrial relations and to establish a proper system for working the docks.
In the old days, the fight was against casual employment in its most scandalous form. It was, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) said, Ernest Bevin and some others in the TGWU who led the campaign to establish a dock labour scheme to overcome that in the first place.
Later on, we were faced with a serious problem in the rundown of the docks. Everybody knew that there would be a pretty big reduction in the number of people employed in the docks because of the technological changes. The problem was whether that could be done in an orderly manner or whether a series of industrial actions and strikes would accompany that serious change that had to be undertaken.
Faced with that problem, what happened? In those days, some Conservative Members had a slightly better approach, certainly than Conservative Back Benchers today. Lord Aldington was the spokesman for the employers and the Aldington-Jones agreement was an honourable agreement whereby the rundown was enabled to take place in an orderly way with consultations between employers and trade unions throughout. That was a proper form of industrial democracy for dealing with the problem. [Interruption.] It is all very well for Conservative members to sneer. They are sneering not only at Jack Jones, who made the agreement on behalf of the TGWU and the trade union movement, but at Lord Aldington, who saw the wisdom of trying to make an agreement which would be held to.
Agreements are not there to be torn up at the convenience of one party. Apparently, Conservative Members are asking that all the undertakings made by Lord Aldington on behalf of the employers and the employers section on the board should be abandoned now that the rundown has taken place.
In many of the ports the number of dockers has been considerably run down. I do not say that there have not been any disputes. There have been a few, but there would have been far greater industrial trouble and disturbance in the docks if it had not been for the existence of the scheme and the determination of people on both sides to keep their word and to abide by their undertakings. Having agreed that procedure, they carried it through. If changes are required, there are appropriate methods by which questions can be raised on the board running the scheme. That was all agreed.
For anybody to come before the House and say that the scheme should be torn up unilaterally is a recipe for industrial trouble of the first order. Quite apart from that, it is a most dishonourable proposal. I imagine that one reason for the alleged inertia of the Department of Employment may be that it retains some remnant of a sense of honour in these matters and feels that it should be helping to protect the scheme which has made a considerable contribution to industrial peace in Britain in a place where, for many years, there were great dangers. Without it, changes in the way in which dock work was done would have been highly disorganised and accompanied by appalling strikes and industrial action of one kind or another, which would have wrecked our commerce at critical moments in the past 10 or 20 years. Therefore, I hope that the Government will stand by the agreement.
If change is required, the proper way, as my hon. Friend the Member for Garston said, is to discuss how amendments or alterations can be made. No doubt the TGWU and others involved will, in turn, put forward other propositions. I know that that is contrary to the way in which the Government try to deal with matters. They think that the way to deal with industrial relations is to say, "This is what we want. This is what workers must take and this is the way in which the whole change should be carried through." That is the way in which they try to run industrial relations in Britain, but they are gradually discovering that they come up against bigger obstacles.
I was glad to see that the Government were taught a lesson in the Ford dispute the other day, and there have been other instances. Other cases may arise in other areas too. [Interruption.] It is all very well for hon. Members to laugh. The agreement was very different from the one the Government expected in the first place, and that is very healthy for our industrial relations.
I hope that the Government will take no notice of the plea of the hon. Member for Darlington. I hope that the Minister will tell his hon. Friends—in private, if it is too difficult to do so in public—that it would be utterly dishonourable to have a unilateral breach of the scheme which has benefited Britain's dock industry for many years. It would be especially dishonourable because that scheme, among its many assets, gave people guarantees of employment.
I know that guarantees of employment stick in the throats of modern Tories. It did not stick so much in the throat of Lord Aldington and some of the other Tories of 20 or 30 years ago who made the agreement. They did not object on such grounds. A major part of the scheme was to ensure that dock workers should have guarantees of employment over a long period. If the Government were to yield to pressure from Back Benchers, one consequence would be that the jobs of many dock workers would be under threat, and once dock workers knew that, there would be industrial trouble.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that if dockers in the scheme have guarantees of employment and other benefits as a result of the protection, they enjoy those benefits only as a result of guarantees of unemployment to others who would otherwise secure employment in the docks and enjoy the benefit of being in work?
The hon. Gentleman is talking absolute nonsense, particularly given the unemployment that we have had to endure over the past five or six years. Under the scheme, the dockers have a better guarantee of their employment than many other sections of the community, so it is a very good scheme. A similar industrial democracy system should have operated in many other trades, occupations and industries, so that better industrial relations would have been preserved. Many industries have not had that protection over the past seven or eight years.
I hope that the Government will resist any pressure in this respect and will recognise that if they are to seek change they should raise the matter under the provisions of the scheme. They cannot make changes arbitrarily and unilaterally without bringing dishonour on themselves and perhaps much greater industrial trouble. I urge the Government to reject—although they may have to do it politely—the nonsense from their Back Benchers.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) on selecting this topic, as it is a subject which many Conservative Members are keen to debate and on which they would like to see the Government take some action.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) spoke about history. I have a family interest in the docks, as my maternal great-grandfather, Tom Mann, was one of the three leaders of the 1889 dock strike and led the fight to get rid of the casual system, which was abolished as a result of the 1946 agreement. We have moved on 100 years since then.
My hon. Friend is quite right; many Opposition Members are stuck in the 19th century. The more progressive of them are in the 1930s, but the rest of us have had to move on to consider the effects of the scheme today, not 100 years ago, 1946 or even 1976, when the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) introduced the Dock Work Regulation Bill.
The Aldington-Jones agreement was referred to by the right hon. Member. What agreement took place with the people in the cold store warehouses in Tilbury, who were told that their jobs would be handed over to the dockers? The people who worked in the container places were not consulted by Jones or Aldington, or by the right hon. Gentleman, before the proposals were made. It was proposed that the definition of "port" in the Dock Work Regulation Act 1976 should be extended to cover a radius of five miles, but that never came to fruition because of opposition from the workers in those stores.
We are entitled to ask the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent what we should learn from his experience. In the Jones-Aldington report one sees the corporate state mentality which underlay all their recommendations. I quote from page 8, headed Container Groupage:
It can thus be said with fair assurance that a good proportion of groupage containers are now being dealt with either by registered dockworkers or by other workers under acceptable conditions. But some container groupage work is still being done, sometimes close to the ports, under bad conditions.
The committee recommended that if other workers were carrying out the work, apart from registered workers, it should only be under proper conditions, and all the undertakings which handled groupage containers should satisfy themselves that the requirements were being met.
The Aldington-Jones agreement wanted to hand over to the dock workers the container work. The report went on to say—this is a lovely sentence which is worth savouring:
In making this agreed recommendation the Committee feel it right to record that the trade union members of the Committee firmly believe that the Dock Labour Scheme should be extended to all ports and wharves.
You bet your bottom dollar they did. They would like to have a monopoly control over what happens in the docks.
I am delighted to say that common sense has prevailed and since then the number of registered port workers has declined, but the number working outside the scheme has increased because employers have seen, as have employees, that there are benefits to be gained from not being a registered port worker.
I should mention the working practices in the dock labour scheme. The first is ghosting. If an employer needs to bring a specialist worker on to the dock, such as a crane driver, he must be paired with a docker, who in theory stands and watches but in practice goes home or goes to the pub at 10 o'clock in the morning. Then there is bobbing. A set number of dock workers are assigned to the job—half of them do the work and the others bob off.
Moonlighting means that clockers are guaranteed fallback pay when there is no work for them to do, earn extra work driving minicabs or running market stalls. Then there is disappointment money. Employers pay compensation in return for lost bonuses when a ship fails to dock or a cargo is cancelled. There is not much disappointment for the workers, but there certainly is for the employers. The Spanish customs have meant, according to page 82 of the National Dock Labour Board annual report of 1986, that unemployment of dockers in the scheme is 21 per cent.
With regard to discipline under the scheme, I refer to an answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) on 19 February. In every year since 1981, every employee who has been summarily dismissed under the dock labour scheme has been immediately re-employed —some discipline! If workers know that they will be reemployed immediately, they might as well be undisciplined in the first place.
As for the administrative costs of the board, a parliamentary answer on 14 January showed that a levy of some £4 million per year is imposed on employers, which has meant that the profit and loss of the scheme for the five major ports has varied between a loss of £1·5 million in London and profits of £2·4 million in Medway ports, £2·4 million on the Mersey and £2 million in the Manchester ship canal. There is a discrepancy between the best and worst ports in the scheme.
In order to find out the costs of the hoards, I asked my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary whether he would tell me what the administrative costs of local dock labour scheme boards were. The answer was that the information was not made public. I then asked why it was not made public, and the answer was:
I regret that the information is not held centrally and could only be obtained at disproportionate cost."—[Official Report, 3 February 1988; Vol. 126, c. 644.]
That does not tell me why it is not made public, just that it would cost a lot of money, so we do not know how much the boards are charging their clients for the use of the scheme.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) referred to costs to the users of ports and mentioned Rotterdam and Antwerp. It is interesting to note that the average cost per tonne in Rotterdam and Antwerp is between £2·50 and £3·50. In the United Kingdom, the average cost per tonne is between £7 and £15. Only a very patriotic cargo vessel owner would choose the United Kingdom if he had a choice between unloading in Europe or in the United Kingdom.
I want to examine the costs that the scheme imposes on users in the United Kingdom and I take as my example the unloading of fish. In Aberdeen, which is a scheme port, the cost is £3 a box of fish. In the non-scheme port of Grimsby, the cost is £1·44 a box. That means that the trade in Aberdeen is gradually declining, while trade in Grimsby is beginning to increase.
I want also to consider dockers' pay. We have come a long way since 1889 when Mr. H. H. Champion said:
The Dock Labourer has no; unaptly been described as 'a man who always lives with only half-a-crown between him and starvation'.
That starvation is a long way away today. The average pay of a dock worker in the dock scheme today is £309·78 a week. However, that is only an average. In Port Talbot in south Wales—and south Wales has the second lowest wage rates in the United Kingdom—the gross wage of a dock worker is £472 a week. That is almost £300 a week more than the average wage in Port Talbot. People must be queueing all the way to Swansea to get a job in the Port Talbot docks. However, the number of people wanting to send their ships there is another matter.
According to the National Dock Labour Board the maximum severance pay in 1986 was £25,000. I could continue to cite the costs of the scheme to employers and the people who use the ports. However, I want to consider the scheme's effects. I have received a letter from Mrs. Eleanor Laing, who stood at the last general election for the Conservative cause in the constituency of Paisley, North. She has had discussions with business men who want to operate a new dock in Port Glasgow. She states:
They are required to apply to the Clyde Port Authority for an Operations Licence, which they have duly done. The Clyde Port Authority has stated that one of the conditions of the granting of an Operations Licence is that they 'shall employ Registered Dock Labour at the said location on all activities falling under the definition of "Dock Work" and shall further adhere to the decisions laid down from time to time by the Clyde Port Authority and the National Dock Labour Board.' Negotiations have taken place with the Clyde
Port Authority and it appears that the Company who intend to operate the Dock would be obliged to employ Registered Dock Labour which they calculate would add to their operating costs by approximately £4,200 per week. Such an added expense would make their business unviable and consequently they would be unable to put the Dock into operation and to provide the employment opportunities which they had hoped would result from their venture.
That is an example of the effect of the scheme on a company which wants to move into the dock labour scheme.
I suggest that the scheme is a restraint on trade. It prevents the creation of jobs in the inner cities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Darlingtion said, the derelict land in the port areas is equivalent to 300 new Canary wharves. That is five times the area of Paris and that land is lying vacant and waiting for an inner city initiative. That initiative will work if the scheme were abolished.
I now want to consider the attitude of mind operating in the National Dock Labour Board that underlies all its operations. Paragraph 19 of the National Dock Labour Board annual report is entitled "Definition of Dock Work." It states:
Definition of dock work issues continued to be a problem and 12 cases were dealt with during 1986. There is growing concern over the increasing number of non-Scheme projects which have been and are being developed, often in close proximity to existing Scheme ports. This has been particularly noticeable on the Ouse and Trent rivers, and in the vicinity of the Wash. In some cases, the National Board took the unusual step of expressing its concern to the local authorities which were involved in the planning applications. In one case, Sutton Bridge, the matter was referred to an Industrial Tribunal. Unfortunately the Tribunal's decision went against the Board and in consequence, the development of this new facility, with its potential for adversely affecting the traffic and employment of registered dock workers at the nearby Scheme ports is the cause of anxiety both locally and to the National Board.
I could not give a better example of the corporate state monopoly attitudes embodied in the whole idea of the dock work scheme and the workings of the National Dock Labour Board.
What effect has the dock work scheme had on the ports in this country? My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington told us that in 1970 nearly 40,000 people were employed as registered dock workers. There are now fewer than 10,000. In 1967, 92 per cent. of the total non-fuel traffic entering the ports went to registered docks. Today only 70 per cent. goes to registered docks. That clearly shows the effect of the scheme on the employees within the scheme and on their livelihoods.
We should be taking action. We should not simply let the scheme wither away. My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington mentioned the average age of dock workers in the scheme—only 46·3 years. There would be dockers in the scheme for nearly another 20 years even if not one more docker was recruited; and we are aware that new dockers are being recruited to the scheme.
Some 22 per cent. of registered dock workers are under 40, about 40 per cent. are between 40 and 50 years old and 36 per cent. are between 50 and 60 years of age. The scheme will not wither away. It will go away only if Government action is taken to end the scheme. A policy based simply on allowing the decline to continue cannot create the conditions in which the industry can flourish and in which we can provide new jobs.
I believe, therefore, that we should take the advice provided by my right hon. learned Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan). We should give employers and the unions six months to get together to reach an agreement to get rid of the scheme. If at the end of that time they cannot agree, the Government must act to end the scheme. There would be sensible severance arrangements and retirement with dignity. I accept the promise made by the employers that they have no wish to return to casual employment. They recognise that the only way forward for the scheme is through the provision of fair competition.
We know that Labour Members have doubts. Only 44 Labour Members backed an amendment to the early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham. Most Labour Members did not sign the amendment. Many people who work in the ports that are not registered want to see an end to the "jobs for life" provided by the Aldington-Jones agreement. They believe that the significant amounts of idle time, high earnings and high severance payments enjoyed by employees in the scheme cannot be allowed to continue.
Deregulation of Britain's ports would do more than anything else to help increase the prosperity of the areas and provide the vital regeneration that they need. I urge the Government to have the courage to grasp the nettle and end one of the last Socialist legacies of the .Attlee Government.
The hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) is mistaken if he believes that the number of Labour Members' names to the amendment to the early-day motion to which he referred is an accurate reflection of the views of Opposition Members on these matters. He is well aware of the rather casual way in which people approach most early-day motions.
The hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon), who opened the debate, is well known for his opposition to the scheme, and he rehearsed the arguments that we have heard before in his usual articulate way. We do not accept his arguments, and I hope that the Government will take this opportunity to reaffirm their support—support that has existed under successive Governments — for the continuation of the scheme.
It was right that my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) should remind us briefly of the origin and history of these arrangements. There was enormous exploitation in the docks, and the casual labour system involved enormous hardship and poverty, not only for those who worked in the docks, but for their communities. There can be no doubt, not only that the scheme has dramatically changed that situation, but that major elements of it still provide benefits for dockers and the communities in which they live.
We believe in job security and in the dignity at work that the scheme has given dockers. Those important benefits should not be thrown away. If the scheme were abandoned or repealed, as Conservative Members suggest it should be, there would be a risk of deterioration in the conditions in which dockers work.
It is true that employers have expressed reservations about, and opposition to, the scheme. Undoubtedly, employers often wish to have complete control over their labour force and resent the role of the trade union. We believe that the arrangements have provided a well-trained, skilled labour force for the ports and docks. Conservative Members seem to think that the reduction in the number of dockers shows a weakness in the scheme. Conservative Members know better than I do that there has been an important change in the pattern of Britain's trade. Entry into the European Community involved a major shift in the relative importance of various ports. A reduction in the labour force is often a consequence of investment and the increased productivity associated with greate efficiency.
Can the hon. Gentleman tell me which of the ports are in decline and which are growing? Can he see any distinction between the two, based on whether they are in the scheme or out of it?
I am making the point that we recognise that there has been a change in the pattern of trade. It is true that the proportion of our trade that goes through scheme ports is lower than that through non-scheme ports, but a very substantial amount of our trade goes through scheme ports. Conservative Members would make a great mistake if they thought that that trade could easily be diverted elsewhere or that we should not be concerned about the enormous disruption that would occur if there were a breakdown in the relationship between the dockers' trade union and their employers. I hope that no hon. Member would want such a breakdown. Nothing in this world is sacrosanct. Of course there must be changes and developments, but surely we all want them to be reached on a proper, sensible and agreed basis.
This Government, like previous Governments, have provided valuable financial assistance in recent years in helping to meet the severance costs for registered dock workers. This scheme, which, as the Minister would be the first to point out, is separate from the dock labour scheme, is due to be extended because it ends this month. The Government are considering this matter. I assume that agreement will be reached on the continuation of some financial assistance from the Government. These severance arrangements are viable factors in the scheme's operation and are important for the employers. I do not believe that they contravene the EEC's provisions.
I want to encourage the Government to maintain a responsible approach to these matters. It must not be forgotten that the scheme is of great benefit to many people and that it should not be terminated, but must be adjusted and developed. All the aspects can be negotiated. I hope that the Government will make it clear that the position is as the Prime Minister reiterated only a couple of months ago in the House—that the Government have no plans to scrap the scheme.
I should like to sound a slightly different note in the debate. Conservative Members have put well a solid case on the harm that the dock labour scheme does. The Opposition have expressed solid support for the dockers who are trying to preserve their jobs. Conservative Members do not believe that the scheme is appropriate in today's climate to preserve jobs.
One need only look at my port as an example. When I was selected as a candidate to fight Dorset, South, there were 25 dock workers in my port. By the time I became a Member, there were 19. The last time that I spoke on this matter I thought that there were 16 but, apparently, there were only 15. I have not checked to find out how many there are now, but one can see that there is a terminal decline. I do not have a dock employer in my constituency —the dock employers are outside it—and there are 15 dock worker votes, a number which is rapidly decreasing. I am interested in preserving those dock worker jobs.
I know what my hon. Friend the Minister may be thinking about the scheme—that perhaps one day there will be sufficient legislative time for the Government to get around to scrapping it — but we must do something before we talk about scrapping the scheme. We must look at our docks and consider how to go forward. We had legislation 15 years ago, and we can argue about whether it was good or bad. There were 50,000 dockers then. There are fewer than 10,000 now, and the number is constantly decreasing.
We need to consider what we do in our ports and how we organise our docks for the future. It would be right for my hon. Friend the Minister to say clearly that the Government are not satisfied with the status quo and that they wish to hear from the port employers and the dock workers their proposals for the docks' future.
Not long ago, I had a meeting with my dockers. They said that, although they wanted to preserve the scheme —to me it may be a sacred cow—they were willing to negotiate. The Government go about all these matters sensibly. We have built up industrial relations. The jibe about Conservative industrial relations not working in the Ford dispute could not be further from the truth. Clearly the Ford dispute was solved by using Conservative industrial relations.
We should send to the dock workers and dock employers the message that we want to hear their proposals, that we shall find time in our legislative programme next Session to get the scheme changed — perhaps abolished, but certainly changed—and that that is our commitment.
I should like first to summon up all my sincerity and say how grateful I am to my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) for giving us the opportunity to debate this issue. I praise him for his good fortune in ensuring that we can discuss these matters at a reasonable hour instead of early in the morning. I should perhaps be even more enthusiastic about having the first debate this evening if I were not fairly certain of having the last as well.
May I also say to those of my hon. Friends who have spoken — all of them with considerable force and eloquence and with a fair degree of knowledge about the issues involved—how much I have appreciated their contributions. I have in mind particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold), for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) and for Dorset, South (Mr. Bruce). Even if I may not entirely agree with their conclusions, I can certainly appreciate the way in which they have put their argument.
Since the beginning of this new Parliament, the future of the dock labour scheme and the question whether it should be abolished have assumed some prominence. A number of hon. Members have asked questions about the scheme and I understand that early-day motion 275, which seeks Government action towards abolition, has attracted 210 signatures rather than the 209 claimed for it this evening. Ministers can therefore be in no doubt as to the significance of the scheme to Conservative Members as well as to the ports industry at large, and we are well aware that the issues raised by it are highly emotive.
However, the more one studies the issues involved, the more one becomes aware of the complexities. It is one thing to allege that the scheme is completely outmoded and a hindrance to flexible development of ports but quite another to assess the true weight of the impediment. It is yet another thing to conclude that repeal would solve all the industry's problems or that no progress can be made while it still exists.
The Government's position has been made clear throughout the various exchanges. It is only right for me to repeat that that position remains unchanged. There are no present plans to abolish or amend the scheme, although, as with other important statutory arrangements, its workings are kept under review.
As critics and supporters alike point out, the scheme derives from early post-war legislation designed to remedy the ill effects of the old-style casual working and the chaotic conditions of employment that existed in the docks before world war 2. The concept of joint regulation of relations between port employers and registered dock workers was held to be in the interests of both. Rightly or wrongly, that has led to a large body of legislation down the years.
So it was that the first national dock labour scheme was established in 1947 under the Dockworkers (Regulation of Employment) Act 1946. There followed the 1967 dock labour scheme, reflecting the 1965 Devlin inquiry into industrial relations, which essentially continues in operation to this day. Devlin marked an important turning point in the history of manpower arrangements in the docks. Before then, dockers were employed by the National Dock Labour Board and allocated to employers on a daily or half-daily basis. As a result of the 1967 scheme, dockers for the first time became permanently employed by specific employers, thus finally putting an end to casualism.
A system of licensing, to reduce port employer numbers, was embodied in the Docks and Harbours Act 1966. Finally, the Dock Work Regulation Act 1976 was an attempt by the last Labour Government to introduce a new and even wider scheme, but Parliament, in its wisdom, refused to approve their 1978 draft.
A statutory employment scheme necessarily entails some administrative on-cost. Hence we have the statutory National Dock Labour Board which runs the scheme, supported by a network of local boards, all consisting of an equal number of employer and union members.
The board maintains registers of dock works and employers which have a statutory monopoly over dock work as defined by the scheme as it applies at each individual port. It also regulates recruitment and discharge from registers and the allocation of registered dock workers to individual employers on a permanent basis. It administers the RDW severance and pension scheme on behalf of the industry, as well as medical, training and welfare facilities.
I have tried to describe the history of the scheme in the least emotive way possible. That history has been referred to not only by my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke, who, through his family, has a direct knowledge of how the scheme first came about, but by the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden). As I have said to the hon. Member for Garston on previous occasions, I do not for one moment doubt the sincerity with which he speaks about these matters. However, when he refers to the forties, it is difficult to know whether he is talking about the 1940s or the 1840s. Time moves on, and as politicians we try to derive the ability to learn from history and develop our ideas from it.
I do not know what I have done to deserve it, but I have had to listen to the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent making speeches on many occasions. I always envy him the style of his speeches. He has a Celtic eloquence which, as someone who is at least half Celt, I can wholly admire. However, once I have got behind the undoubted skill of the right hon. Member's delivery and can concentrate on his approach to the history of these matters. I find that he makes the ancient mariner look like the epitome of yuppy modernity.
Again, one can never doubt the sincerity with which the right hon. Gentleman speaks, but he sems to be completely unable to realise that times move on, decade succeeds decade and century succeeds century—[Interruption.] Does the right hon. Gentleman wish to intervene?
I have tried to say the nicest things that I can about the right hon. Gentleman. I had hoped that I might be able to embarass him, as he may have been able to embarrass me, but perhaps he has been at the trade we both pursue for so long that he is unembarrassable. We shall see.
Let me deal with some of the most frequent criticisms levelled against the scheme. Perhaps the main criticism is that it gives registered dock workers the unnatural privilege of a job for life. Events have shown that there is rather more to it than that. Job security really owes more to the industry's own Jones-Aldington agreement than to the scheme itself.
The ports industry cannot be immune from today's competitive pressures and technological changes. The 1960s container revolution, the advent of roll-on/roll-off traffic and other advances precipitated a truly drastic rundown in labour requirements. The switch of trade from west coast ports to those on the east and south coasts, stimulated by our membership of the European Community, also affects the distribution of manpower to a considerable extent.
Adaptations have taken place, the dock labour scheme notwithstanding. Overall, from a peak of 81,000 in 1955, the number of RDWs declined to 27,000 in 1979 and to under 10,000 today. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South suggested, it may even be declining at this very moment.
Admittedly, because of the way in which the scheme and the associated Jones-Aldington agreement work together, severances of RDWs from scheme ports are effectively made voluntarily. In these circumstances, some large financial inducements have been needed to ease the industry's transition to proper manning levels.
Currently, the normal severance offer amounts to a maximum of £25,000 per man, after 15 years' service, of which the Government and the port employer concerned each pay 50 per cent. This is undoubtedly generous, but the fact remains that the industry has gone a long way towards eliminating its manpower surpluses in most ports. Manning is now much tighter and everyone involved can take much credit for that.
Questions have been asked about what arrangements will apply after the end of this month when the Government's present agreement with the port employers comes to an end—a particular concern of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang). The employers are of course responsible for setting the severance terms offered to registered dock workers. They have said that they cannot determine future arrangements until they know what Government financial assistance will be available.
For the moment, however, the Government cannot make any specific pledge, as any further assistance has to be cleared in principle with the European Commission under its state aids regulations. That process is likely to take a few weeks yet, but of course that in itself has no implications for the future of the dock labour scheme.
A related criticism of the scheme is that it weakens management's ability to manage and reinforces union attitudes that make for inefficiency—a point made by a number of my hon. Friends. Certainly, there is no shortage of reports of disreputable working practices. Scheme or non-scheme, these can only lead to a loss of trade to overseas competitors and must indeed have contributed to the loss of jobs over the years. That must be bad for all whose work and future are bound up with the industry.
However, it has to be said that local managements seem to vary considerably in their ability to run successful cargo-handling operations. Despite the constraints, many scheme ports are profitable and, as I have already suggested, the industry has adjusted and responded successfully to enormous technological changes over the years, and that could not have been achieved without effective management.
The same arguments present themselves when considering the related position that the scheme militates against enterprise, competitiveness and development of the ports. Those were some of the concerns mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington and echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham.
The history of the past 20 years has shown that the ports have, in fact, worked through a profound revolution in their methods and operations, which has required enormous investment and a readiness to adapt. Some may say that that has been achieved in spite of the scheme, rather than because of it, but clearly some managements have been able to succeed better than others.
None of this is to deny, however, the perennial need to remain competitive, and to the extent that dock workers and their unions abuse the scheme, rather than use it constructively, they do, indeed, hamper their own prospects.
On that point, recent press articles have highlighted some of the so-called 'Spanish customs'. My hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke has referred to 'ghosting' `bobbing' and 'moonlighting'. Obviously, such practices ultimately have the effect of undermining the employment prospects of those who indulge in them. Hon. Members can probably think of similar practices. Such practices are far cry from the maxim, "A fair day's work for a fair day's pay," to which trade unionists have traditionally subscribed.
Finally, it is said that the scheme is anachronistic and no longer necessary for its original purpose. I suppose that it would be true to say that, starting from now, nobody with the industry's well-being at heart would design something so rigid and bureaucratic. However, that is not the same as pressing ahead at once with repeal. In my view, all those who wish to preserve the scheme, including Opposition Members, have a duty to show how it can be made to assist the industry and how abuses can be stopped.
I repeat that it is remarkable that we hear tales about how the dock labour scheme came into practice and the undoubted miseries under which dockers were made to work in the previous century from Opposition Members, when the leader of the Labour party was able to make a joke at his own party conference about dock workers, saying that it was not entirely realistic to say to a man who has a villa in Marbella, "Come on, brother, let me take you out of your misery." Perhaps to that extent, the leader of the Labour party is slightly in advance of some of his hon. Friends to whom we have listened tonight.
If the speeches of my hon. Friends tonight are taken at their face value, mere abolition of the scheme would mean that all the problems of the employers could be removed at a stroke. It is heartening to think that that could be so, but, despite the considerable eloquence and enthusiasm that my hon. Friends have shown tonight, I cannot believe that the mere abolition of the scheme would have all the desirable effects that they seem to believe.
I apologise to the Minister, to Conservative Members and to my right hon. and hon. Friends for the fact that I have not heard much of the debate. Therefore, out of courtesy to the Minister, because I know that he would not seek to come back on what I say, I shall not take any great issue with the points that he has made.
However, from the debate that I have heard, and from all my experience of the dock industry — not as an employee, but as a Member of Parliament representing the port of Grangemouth over a fairly large number of years — my experience is that the National Association of Port Employers has sought for several years to have the national dock labour scheme terminated.
I do not accept that the future of our ports depends on whether that scheme continues. My hon. Friends may he surprised at my saying that. I do not believe that the future of the ports in the United Kingdom — especially in Scotland, and even more especially on the east coast of Scotland — depends primarily on the attitude of the National Association of Port Employers, or even on the attitude of the Transport and General Workers Union. It depends primarily on the owners of the vessels. From the debate that I was able to hear, I noticed that there was little or no reference to the shipowners.
For the benefit of my Scottish colleagues who are present, I shall relate the stark reality of what is happening in the Scottish ports at the moment and has been happening for a considerable number of years under a scheme called the grid scheme.
Simply explained, if one takes as an example the whisky industry in Scotland, one could put a load of whisky on to a lorry in the city of Perth, where much of our whisky is made, and have it transported free of charge down to the non-scheme port of Felixstowe. The road haulage costs would be paid for by the shipowner, on the basis that it is much cheaper to pay those costs than to have the vessel steam the additional distance to Grangemouth or Neath, which is near the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang), or to any of the east coast ports of Scotland.
That grid scheme has had interesting results in Scotland during the past 10 years. Ten or 12 years ago, 75 per cent. of all goods manufactured in Scotland for export were exported from ports in Scotland. That is a significant figure, but that 75 per cent. has now been reduced to 25 per cent. I agree that in a sense that is because Scotland is exporting less, but it is primarily because of the grid system, whereby the shipowners pay the road haulage costs from the point of departure to the non-scheme port of Felixstowe. The scheme is having a devastating effect on the port industry in Scotland, both east and west. The port of Glasgow has closed down almost completely. It was a busy, thriving port until about 10 years ago.
When I first went to Grangemouth to represent that constituency, there were 800 dockers. On hearing the Minister talk about technological change, I was reminded that Grangemouth was the first port in Scotland to be containerised. Our dockers in Grangemouth did not put up any opposition to the advent of mechanisation and, as a result, we are left with the most obsolete equipment. By that I mean that, if one wants to load a vessel eight containers across in the port of Grangemouth, despite its deep water for 24 hours a day, one can load the vessel only four across. One must then take the vessel out, turn it and bring it back in so that it is then possible to load the other four containers from the other side of the vessel. That is because the arm of the gantry that loads the containers on to the vessel is 17, 18 or even 20 years old and is now out of date.
Because of the lack of investment in the port, we in Grangemouth, having accepted containerisation in its early days, have been left behind in terms of mechanisation. As a result, the work force in Grangemouth has declined from about 800 dockers when I first went there to under 300 dockers now. In all honesty, I should point out that many of those 300 dockers are, as we say, "sent up the road" almost every day of the week because there are not sufficient vessels coming into Grangemouth to employ them full-time.
I urge the Minister to take on board my comments about the future of the port industry in Britain. If he thinks that there is anything to answer in what I am saying, perhaps he could drop me a note. The future of the port industry in Britain is not really tied up with the national dock labour scheme. I could advise the National Association of Port Employers that the national dock labour scheme will be broken over my dead body. I do not want to go into history, but I can remember what happened in the days of casual labour. I do not want to recite the incidents that took place then, because that would not do any of us any good. We all have our own memories of what happened in the days of casual labour. The National Association of Port Employers has got it completely wrong.
The future of Great Britain's port industry will not he decided by that association or—I hesitate to say it, but it must be said—by the Transport and General Workers Union and the national dock labour scheme. The future will be decided almost entirely by the attitude of shipowners. If the grid system, which has prevailed in Scotland to our serious disadvantage, is allowed to continue, the net effect will be the continuing closure of Scottish ports. Once the ports have been closed, the national grid system will be abolished and the road haulage costs will be added to the costs incurred by the company that is exporting goods. The company will have to pay for the transport of goods from cities such as Perth, Glasgow or Edinburgh down to Felixstowe or any other port from which the goods will be exported.
I hope that the Minister and his hon. Friends will give some thought to the part that will be played by the shipowners in deciding the future of our port industry. I believe that the role of the shipowners will, in the months and years ahead, become central to the issue that we have had the good fortune to debate tonight.