Mersey Docks and Harbour Company

– in the House of Commons at 9:41 pm on 25 October 1995.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Streeter.]

Photo of Mr Eddie Loyden Mr Eddie Loyden , Liverpool, Garston 10:15, 25 October 1995

I welcome the opportunity of raising a problem concerning the port of Liverpool and its dock workers. I declare an interest as a member of the Transport and General Workers Union for 50 years, a record of which I am proud. I served on union committees at both district and national level in the docks and waterways section. Those are my credentials for understanding the history of the docks industry. I hope that the Minister accepts that.

The dispute was brought to a head by the conduct of the employer and the deterioration of industrial relations. The House will know that the Government, through the Dock Work Act 1989, abolished the national dock labour scheme. That was done on the basis that the industry had moved ahead. It was no longer labour intensive but moving towards being more capital intensive.

However reluctantly, the dockers accepted that situation. Nevertheless, they felt, and I think that their fears were well founded, that the result of the abolition of the scheme would be a return to casual labour.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle , Wallasey

That is what they are worried about.

Photo of Mr Eddie Loyden Mr Eddie Loyden , Liverpool, Garston

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) says, that is what they are worried about. Everything that the dock company has done recently confirms that fear.

I and my hon. Friends the Members for Wallasey, for Bootle (Mr. Benton) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Mr. Parry), met the dock company which said that it wanted casual labour. It referred to it as permanent casual labour. I do not know what that means; perhaps the Minister will be able to explain it. It must mean either permanently casual or casually permanent. I do not know which of those the company meant.

There is no doubt that the dock workers fear a return to the sort of days that I can remember. The Minister probably does not remember them. I can tell him that men in those days were treated worse than animals. They were herded into tightly packed pens. The selection of men was based on discrimination of all sorts; it could be based on religion, or on whether men had blue eyes or anything. The dignity of those men was taken from them; they were lowered to the status of animals. Men were hired, and the rest were sent home without work or wages. It was through the struggle of dock workers throughout the country that the conditions that they endured were recognised as inhuman and undeniably barbaric.

The campaign lasted throughout the century, up to and after the war. The campaigners wanted a scheme to end casualisation and give dockers the dignity enjoyed by other workers. The industry in Liverpool provided the life blood for the local economy—not only in Liverpool, but in the hinterland on both sides of the river. Liverpool's wealth grew out of that work force—dockers, seamen and others. As recently as pre-1989, that force consisted of 6,000 people; now it consists of only 500.

The Minister must understand that the events that brought the present situation to a head were not instantaneous; they had been building up as a result of poor labour relations. Let me also stress that massive support is coming from areas that no one would expect to give such support. Religious leaders have condemned the company; the Liverpool Echo—which I have never known to praise or support any striker, let alone dockers, at any time in its history—has made rousing comments about the way in which the company has handled the situation. Further support has been provided by the local community.

Recently, even the head of Radio Merseyside[Interruption.]—I mean Radio City—said, at a dinner for business men, no less, that the company was acting like the mill owners of the 19th century. That shows the depth of feeling in Liverpool about the way in which the company has treated its dockers. These are decent men, who stayed in the docks rather than taking £35,000 and walking away. They wanted to continue to work in the docks, and they had a right to do so.

Those who have met the board and the dockers have gained the impression that the company set out to ensure a disturbance, so that the men would finally go through the gate. The company could then attempt to recruit outside, abandoning responsibility for the container base so that it would be taken over and scabs would be drafted in to take the jobs. I make no apology for calling them scabs: they would undermine dock workers by walking in and working for lower wages, under the conditions that prevailed before and even after the war.

The Minister may ask what that has to do with him. The Government, however, have shares in the company; they have a responsibility to tell it—as I hope that they will—that, in return for the tranches of money that they have given for its modernisation, the company must deal with this problem, and respond to the feelings expressed by local people.

Liverpool is a successful port. It is now turning over £35 million—the highest amount that it has turned over in its history.

That has happened because dock workers have accepted the change, no matter how bitterly it has taken place, and they are the people who have created the wealth for the company. They have created the success. It is not made in offices or boardrooms. It is made by the people who work on the coal face of industry—in the docks. They are the people who have made it possible for the port to be probably the most successful in the post-war period.

I say to the Government that that position will not go away. There is now a great deal of strong feeling about the way in which the dockers have been treated. I remind the House and the Minister that the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler), who was the Secretary of State for Employment at the time when the Dock Work Bill was passing through the House—and I have played a part in every dock Bill that has been discussed in the House since I have been a Member of Parliament—said: Dock work is now highly skilled specialist work that often requires the use of sophisticated machinery. It requires a permanent and well trained work force. The days when large numbers of unskilled workers assembled waiting to see if they were to work have gone for good—and everyone is glad of that. To underline that point, the employers in the present scheme ports have given an assurance that after abolition there will be no return to casual employment."—[Official Report, 17 April 1989; Vol. 151, c. 45.] We refer to ourselves in this place as honourable men.

Photo of Mr Eddie Loyden Mr Eddie Loyden , Liverpool, Garston

And women. I thank my hon. Friend.

The Secretary of State has made statements of that type and the director of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company has made a similar statement that there would be no return to casualisation. The incident that triggered off that position occurred at a company that was set up with the consent—or agreement—of both the company and the dock workers. That was Torside.

Among the workers at that company were young men—younger than the existing age range among the dock workers—and they formed part of the company in the port of Liverpool. Five of those young men, many of whom were dockers' sons, some not, who were keen to get into dock work, keen to obtain a job in the docks, were asked—or told, I should say—to work overtime. There was a dispute about the conditions of that overtime, which resulted in the men refusing to work overtime. They were summarily dismissed—or, as we say, sacked on the spot. That was what triggered off the present position.

For several days, reconciliation was tried, but it fell on deaf ears on the dock company's part. We, as Members of Parliament, met representatives of the company and tried to instil in them the importance of what was going on. The issue was a minor matter that could have been settled at a later date.

As a result of the strength of feeling among those men, they formed a picket of the dock gates the following week. Obviously, the rest of the container base men would not cross a picket line. Dockers do not know what it means to cross a picket line—they will not do it. As a consequence, the dock company sacked the lot.

It is 1995, and we are returning to the dark days of threatened casualisation. I believe that that is a serious threat. I believe that people are entitled to work with dignity under conditions that are human, and to be part of the process of developing the industry in the way that they have.

At one time, the dockers were the butt of the jokes of some poor comedians, but they themselves have a sense of humour that no one can match and they are men, in that sense, who are proud to be dockers. They are proud of the work they do and proud of the port in which they work, and so are their families and friends and their communities.

With the indulgence of the House, I shall read a letter sent by a docker's wife on the matter. The letter states: I am speaking as the wife of a man who has worked on the now booming and highly profitable Liverpool Docks for 28 years, through good times and bad. He has constantly refused severance pay because he wants to work.I do not work, I look after my elderly parents, our children are still in the education system on inadequate grants, that we have to subsidise. We are totally dependent on my husband's income and I stand firmly beside him whatever the outcome.I am not political. The only organisations I am a paid up member of are Amnesty International and the Christmas Hamper Club.On Thursday, when the letter threatening dismissal arrived, I put it in the folder with the others. On Friday when he was sacked, I felt perversely relieved, because over the last 3–4 years, we have lived constantly under this threat. I have stood by and watched as MDHC have in my opinion, used and totally abused a loyal hardworking, co-operative workforce which is acknowledged as the best in the country.I have watched my husband being bullied by threats and borne the knock-on effects this has on family and social life. It might be OK I said—you will know your rota in advance. It will only be changed occasionally. We can plan our lives around it. How wrong I was.We have phone calls practically on a daily basis, altering his shift. 7am to 3pm will be changed to 7 to 7. 3pm to 11pm can become 11am to 11pm or nights. The day before a rota day off, they can ring and change your shift to 12 hour nights, then your day off becomes a sleep day.We get calls on his day off, asking him to work or to change the next day's shift. Bank Holidays—you are expected to work 12 hours. But for your day in lieu you get 7 hours pay.We have had a call when he has been in bed less than 4 hours after a 12 hour night shift, he was back at work—driving a straddler. The Minister will be well aware of that docking implement. The letter continued: I wondered how human beings could treat their fellow men in such a cruel and insensitive way—without any apparent thought for the social and economic consequences.Well Mr. Furlong and Mr. Cliff—when you climb into your beds tonight, spare a thought for me.Doreen McNally—human being—wife and mother—red hair, blue eyes, flesh and blood and as much right to shelter and nourish my family as you have yours. I ask the Minister to intervene in this case and to try to bring some sense into the minds of the people who have caused the situation. The Minister must give an undertaking that there will be no return to casual work, as promised by a Tory Secretary of State in the past.

Photo of Mr Robert Parry Mr Robert Parry , Liverpool, Riverside 10:33, 25 October 1995

I fully support the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden), who explained to the House the problems facing dockers in Liverpool. I have been inundated with letters from dockers, and from the wives of dockers who are astounded and out of their minds at the idea of their husbands being unemployed.

As my hon. Friend said, dockers with up to 35 years' service are being thrown on the scrapheap without redundancy pay, while those under 55 will have their pensions frozen. That is inhuman, and it is a disgrace that the company can treat workers in that manner. We have met the dock company and—to be perfectly frank—I was disgusted with its attitude. The company's attitude was that it was too bad that these men were being thrown out of work, and Mr. Cliff was reported in the local press as saying that the men would be put out of work irrespective of interventions from Members of Parliament or from church leaders—Catholic, Anglican and Free church leaders—who have begged for the dockers' case to be considered again. Mr. Trevor Furlong said that casualisation would not follow the abolition of the dock labour scheme.

On 17 April 1989, I asked the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) to give an assurance that there would be no casualisation of jobs. He assured me that that was the case. I hope that in his wind-up speech tonight the Minister will confirm that the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Education and Employment will meet dockers and the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company around the table. I hope that the men will then be able to return to work and no jobs will be lost.

Photo of Jonathan Evans Jonathan Evans , Brecon and Radnor 10:35, 25 October 1995

I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) on securing this debate. I am very much aware that both he and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mr. Parry) have a long record of service to the people of Liverpool. In my role as the Department of Trade and Industry Minister with specific responsibility for industrial issues in the north-west and Merseyside, I visited Liverpool on Friday of last week and again this morning when I attended a meeting with the American ambassador, representatives of local government, private business and the regional agencies, which are all working towards promoting urban regeneration in the area.

In replying to the debate, I think that it is necessary to examine some of the facts of the dispute. They have been touched on to a certain extent in the two previous speeches. The dispute at the port of Liverpool started at a cargo handling company, Torside Ltd. On 28 September, Torside dismissed two employees over a dispute about overtime payments and alleged casualisation. I have heard that described initially as a minor matter, and I have no evidence to challenge that assessment. However, what happened thereafter is of some concern.

Following the dismissals, the remainder of Torside's 80 dockers took strike action and were themselves subsequently dismissed. The Mersey Docks and Harbour Company became involved in the dispute only when the dismissed Torside workers established a picket line outside the docks. I was brought up in the mining town of Tredegar in south Wales, and I understand the resonance of picket lines. A large number of Mersey Docks and Harbour Company employees refused to cross the picket line, and work at Seaforth's container and timber terminal stopped. After three days, the company held that the men had dismissed themselves and issued them with dismissal notices.

The company said that it dismissed 300 dockers out of its work force of 380 for breach of contract when the men refused to cross an unofficial picket line and report for work.

Photo of Jonathan Evans Jonathan Evans , Brecon and Radnor

I hope that the hon. Lady will excuse me, but I shall not give way. I have been allowed only 10 minutes in which to reply to the debate and I think that many people in Liverpool are anxious to hear the Government respond to the points that were put at some length by the hon. Member for Garston.

In order to ensure that the docks continued to operate, the company advertised the vacant posts. I understand that, in doing so, it made it clear that it would consider applications from the dismissed dockers if they chose to apply.

Let us turn to the actions of the union involved: the Transport and General Workers Union. I note that it sponsors the hon. Members for Garston and for Riverside and they have declared that interest. I also declare the fact that I often acted for the Transport and General Workers Union in my legal practice. The union has not authorized or endorsed—I stress that point—the action at either Torside or at the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company. Therefore, the action is unofficial. However, both local and national union officers have made statements criticising the company, calling for the reinstatement of those who have been dismissed and for an end to the use of casual labour.

As the Minister responsible for the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, I wish to comment on potential ACAS involvement. I understand that it has been in touch with both parties and that discussions between the company and the union are continuing. ACAS will continue to monitor the situation and it will become involved as and when both parties wish it to do so. However, it must be recognised that—I reinforce this point—ACAS is an independent body and the Government do not have the power to instruct either party to make use of its services.

We heard much in the debate about the law and how it has inhibited dockers in their alleged fight for justice. It will be helpful to examine the facts. It has always been the law, even under legislation by the last Labour Government, that workers who break their contracts of employment can be dismissed and may not be able to claim for unfair dismissal. The law does not provide for immunity from court proceedings for anyone who takes industrial action against an employer who is not a party to the trade dispute to which the action relates. I re-emphasise that point.

The law also requires a union to hold a properly conducted ballot of its members before organising industrial action. It must provide notice of the ballot and details of the result to the employer. It must give seven days' notice of industrial action to the employer and describe those whom it intends should take part. If there is a failure to do that—which is not what happened in this case—the union will not be protected from the possibility of legal action for inducing breaches of contract.

The law protects strikers against discrimination when their strike is official, which means that it is authorised or endorsed by a trade union. Dismissed strikers may be able to claim unfair dismissal if their employer has sacked only some of those who are on strike or if he has reinstated or offered new contracts to some of those who were sacked—[Interruption.] I am explaining the position of those who are on strike and have then been dismissed. I said at the beginning of my speech that that is the situation we are dealing with, although some Opposition Members do not appear to recognise that.

In this case, workers were breaking their contracts of employment without making any attempt to use the proper channels for redress in an industrial dispute. The employees of Torside simply chose to walk off the job without a ballot. The employees of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company had no dispute with their employer before they went on strike themselves, and the action of those men was unofficial and unlawful. It was inevitable that consequences would flow from that.

There can be no protection under the law for employees who take unofficial and, in the case of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company employees, secondary and illegal action. As we know, that is precisely the sort of disruptive behaviour that caused so much damage in the past.

The Mersey Docks and Harbour Company, in its capacity as the operator of the port of Liverpool, is one of the most significant contributors to the region's economy, and that is good news throughout the north-west. Liverpool university's study entitled "The Employment Impact of the Port of Liverpool in the 1990s" estimates that between 49,000 and 105,000 jobs on Merseyside, which are held by many of the people who are represented by many Opposition Members, depend on the trading activities of the port. That is one of the reasons why it is particularly important that the port should continue to operate.

In the debate we have heard a great deal about casualisation and it is important to explain that casualisation carries particular meaning in the context of dock work. The hon. Member for Garston spoke graphically about that and will have noted that I agreed with his assessment. The term reminds one of bygone days when men were literally fighting one another for the odd day's work. Those brutish practices are long gone and in that sense casualisation no longer exists. That is not surprising, because the nature of dock work has changed radically over the years. New technologies have transformed the way in which the work is undertaken, and our docks no longer teem with gangs of workers manually heaving loads on and off ships. The work today requires skill and adaptability, and one does not obtain a work force with those attributes by returning to the arcane and unsatisfactory recruitment practices of the 1930s.

I have said that the term "casualisation" has a special meaning for the docks. It is an emotive term that rekindles old animosities and can stoke up groundless fears and discontent. It is not to be bandied about in a carefree manner as it has sometimes been in the context of this dispute, especially at a time when the dispute is running with all the resonances that we have heard about in the debate. According to the labour force survey, approximately 85 per cent. of stevedores and dockers are permanently employed.

The port of Liverpool has a proud history. It used to deal with transatlantic liners and sustained a healthy trade until the technical developments of the late 1960s and chronic overmanning imposed by the dock labour scheme caught up with it. Following abolition of that scheme, the port took on a new lease of life. Cargo volumes are at record levels—29 million tonnes in 1994, which is treble the amount for 1987. Many additional shipping lines have been attracted to the port whose Seaforth container terminal and the freeport continue to attract additional traffic. Staff levels are set at realistic levels which are appropriate to the business needs of the docks as opposed to the overmanning—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR.DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.