§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Delargy.]
§ 3.59 p.m.
§ Mr. Mellish (Bermondsey)
After a whole day discussing the problem of timber it is quite coincidental that the subject I wish to raise, having been successful in the Ballot, is one that also concerns timber—timber required for housing; timber that is brought from other countries into the docks of London. I wish to bring to the notice of the House the fact that today there is a very grievous shortage of craft in the London Docks which is resulting in a serious delay in the turn-round of shipping. Recently, in the "Daily Mail," articles have been written indicating that the turn-round of shipping in the London Docks was—
§ It being Four o'Clock the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Delargy.]
§ Mr. Mellish
—worse than ever before in the history of the port and compared with foreign countries British shipping was lamentable. A very serious charge was levelled against those who are employed within the industry. It is true that there is a serious delay in the turn-round of shipping, and I know that the London dock worker in particular has been the subject of a great deal of criticism in this House since 1945.
Today, I want to make it quite clear that the subject I am raising is at the request of the London dock worker, who is very concerned about the delay in the turn-round of ships. It is not his fault. He is very anxious to do a job of work and, to quote the Leader of the Opposition in a speech he made during the war in another context, "if given the tools he will do the job." It is up to the Ministry of Transport to make quite certain that we provide him with the necessary tools to do the job properly.
The position is that when shipping arrives, particularly in my own docks, the Surrey Commercial Docks, it needs a great number of craft like lighters and barges to discharge the cargo. What is 2760 happening is that there is a deplorable delay because there is not the craft available. To confirm that I will quote one or two instances which will make the House understand why I think this issue should be debated this afternoon. These are all of recent dates. Into the Surrey Commercial Docks on 25th June, there came the s.s. "Marx." Four gangs went aboard at eight o'clock in the morning with the intention of unloading her. The first gang only worked six hours. They lost two hours' work because there was no craft available for their hold. Thirteen men lost two hours' work, which is 26 man-hours on one hold.
The second gang did only five hours work owing to a shortage of craft, which meant a loss of three hours for each of the 13 men or 39 man-hours in all. Another gang lost four hours' work or 52 man-hours altogether while a fourth gang did not work at all, because there was no craft available. As a consequence of that, in one day there was a loss of 221 man-hours' work. Any observer who was present in the dock and saw that ship lying at her berth, with so many men waiting to unload her, would have been tempted to believe that the men were not pulling their weight. The truth is that these men were anxious to do the job, but that the craft were not available to discharge the cargo.
I agree that that particular case may appear rather exceptional, but then there is the s.s. "Spora" on the same day when 143 man-hours were lost, the s.s." Agais," when 52 man-hours were lost, the s.s. "Hermes," when 52 man-hours were lost, and the s.s. "Warde," when another 52 man-hours were lost; And so the story goes on in the Surrey Commercial Docks, for there are not sufficient craft to take the cargoes away when these ships are ready to discharge them. The men brought the matter to my notice because they want to get on with the job. They realise the need for the cargoes from this dock, which is mainly concerned with timber.
I would suggest to the House some of the reasons for the shortage of craft. The first accepted reason is the depletion of craft fleets owing to losses in the blitz and conversion into landing craft during the war and not returned. Also, there is not very much production of new craft at the moment, because of the 2761 shortage of steel. As an example, I would mention that the Thames Steam Tug and Lighterage Company, London, are 1,000 lighters down compared with their prewar number.
Another reason is the shocking mismanagement which is going on at the docks in the way in which craft are made available. For example, craft are sent to a ship to unload the cargo which is in the lower part of the hold while the craft for cargo in the upper part of the hold has not arrived. That leads to the ridiculous position that men are waiting to do a job of work clearing one part of the cargo while craft are waiting to deal with the other part. There are many bottlenecks, especially in the small wharves at which many of the lighters deliver their cargoes. These bottlenecks are caused mainly by the fact that the men in some of those wharves do not work on piece-work rates like the stevedores in the bigger docks, but on a day rate, and that their output is much slower.
There has been long delay by craft at the Nine Elms railway depot in discharging the lighters. This delay has been caused by the difficulty in getting shunters to shunt the wagons to the dockside to clear the craft. Large numbers of craft are tied up in many ways, although they are urgently needed in the main docks to get rid of ships which are literally queueing up to come in to be discharged.
Further reasons concern the demands on the available craft. Much of the craft is needed for the discharge of timber. Men who are experienced in the matter say that a lot of the heavy timber ought to be dumped on the quays. The Port of London authority reply that the quays are not safe to take a large amount of timber, because the quays were damaged in the blitz. Something ought, therefore, to be done to make the quays safe to take the timber. What has happened is that craft take a large amount of timber down the river and dump it in other places, which means, apart from the loss of craft by being out of action, that the cost increases.
It is alleged that there might be more co-operation among the lighterage firms who own the craft and that they ought to have a system of exchanging the craft that are available. The whole thing has got to the stage where the men are des- 2762 perately anxious for something to be done in the matter. They want, through me, to ask the Minister what he proposes to do, in collaboration with the employers, the trade unions and others responsible, to remedy this position. The men are being indicted by people who do not understand. They are being told they are lazy, that the time they take to turn a ship round from the time she arrives to the time she is ready to depart compares badly with what happens in foreign ports, and, that this must be the responsibility of the men. They want to be given an opportunity to prove that they can turn ships round that come into the docks of London just as speedily as their foreign counterparts, if they are given a chance to do it.
One thing that concerns me as the Member of Parliament for Bermondsey, in which the Surrey Commercial Docks are situated, is that the hold-up in the turnround of ships will eventually do irreparable harm to the Surrey Docks. If it is not remedied, many of the ships which normally come into the Surrey Commercial Docks will be diverted to other ports. That will mean loss of work for the people whom I have the honour to represent. Surrey Commercial Docks are mainly concerned with timber, and, therefore, have, in some ways, excellent facilities for the discharging of timber, although in other ways it might be greatly improved.
It has been suggested that some of the timber might be taken to other parts of the country and brought back to London by rail, or road. That is a shocking thought. Here we have some of the finest docks in the world, and yet this timber would go miles out of London only to be brought back by rail or road. It will mean that discharging of the commodity will cost more, and it will also impose a tremendous strain upon the railway and road system of the country.
As a result of the delay the Surrey Docks men are suffering a great loss of earning power. They are paid at a piece work rate when they are working and when they have to stand by for these long hours—an example which has been given is of 221 man-hours lost—it means that they are standing by on a basic rate and that makes them unhappy and disgruntled. This is one of the things which bedevils the docks today and it 2763 is one of the things which the Minister of Labour must look at when he considers the problems dealt with in the recent Leggett Report. It is important that the Government and the various Departments do all they can to overcome the difficulties.
Another aspect which is relevant is that when the gangs are standing by doing nothing, at other places where work is required to be done there is a shortage and, consequently, the register is opened for more recruits. That is ridiculous in the long term, because when more craft are eventually available we shall have more men than we need, and that will lead to a lot more trouble. The firms take on the men from the National Dock Labour Board in the morning believing that there will be work for them; and the fact that other men are being taken on the register because of a shortage in other parts of the port concerns the Surrey Docks men, for they can see that unless something is done to remedy the position later they will be out of work. That was one of the reasons why there was such a row when the last dispute occurred.
When a ship's gang stands by doing nothing at all, it is not only the men in the gang who are affected. The tally clerks and the lightermen are standing by, and so also are the quay gang and the men in the warehouse. All these men waste their time through no fault of their own. When ships are delayed a great deal of demurrage has to be paid by the timber importers to the foreign ship owners. I cannot give any figure, but it must be an enormous one.
The long-term policy for curing the problem is to build more lighters. That sounds very simple, but I recognise the difficulties. My right hon. Friend may say that this is not his responsibility. It may not be his responsibility to give orders but it is his concern as Minister of Transport to see that the docks are made efficient and if necessary he should call a conference of the parties concerned to see how the problem can be dealt with. We must certainly have many more daft than we have at present.
As regard the Surrey Docks, we want to know what the position is about the quays which are now unsafe and out of commission. What is to be done about 2764 that? It ought to be possible to dump the timber on the quays but we cannot do that now. It is fantastic that the timber should have to go up the river. The matter ought to be given tip-top priority. I do not know whether the P.L.O. has applied for licences; it ought to have done so and the application should have been granted. I should like to bear what my right hon. Friend has to say about this.
There are in the docks today a large number of good, fine British citizens who are anxious to do a real job of work. The London docker has had much adverse criticism for years. Every time he goes on strike blazing headlines describe him as a traitor and all sorts of things like that. I have criticised the London docker severely in the past, and I shall do it again if I think he is wrong. At the same time, we must pay tribute to a body of men who are anxious to do a real job of work. Their job is an arduous one. Years ago they were regarded as unskilled labourers. The Minister will agree that today they are not unskilled; on the contrary, they are very capable.
They have a very difficult job to do and they do it well. We have a duty to make sure that they are given the necessary tools to do the job. They cannot understand why there is not better management on this, and they hope that the Minister will say something today which will galvanise the employers and all the others responsible on the managerial side, as well as everybody connected with his own Department, to see that this problem is overcome.
I wrote to the Minister on this matter some time ago and he said that this was a general problem throughout the Port of London, and that it was under active investigation in order to see what improvements could be effected. I appreciate that, but I hope he will forgive me if I say that the words "active investigation" are the kind of term we frequently use, and Government Departments use a lot. We want to see an immediate investigation and immediate results. One of the reasons why I put down this subject for the Adjournment debate was because I thought it was important enough to be brought into the light of day.
The slow turn-round of shipping—a question which Members of Parliament 2765 have raised in the House on many occasions—is, in the main, not the responsibility of the men. Because of the conditions under which they work and because of the shortage of craft, they are unable to get on with the job. We hope, therefore, that the Minister today will give some hope, if not for the immediate future, at least for the not too far distant future.
§ 4.16 p.m.
§ The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)
I accept the importance of the problem which my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) has raised. Naturally, I have a great interest in speeding up the turn-round of shipping. In all its aspects today shipping is an important item in the cost of our import and export programme. Therefore I, as much as anyone, am exceedingly anxious to remedy this difficulty. At the same time I deprecate any suggestion that the slow turn-round of shipping is the problem of this country alone. Neither would I accept that it is more serious in the ports of Britain. In many other ports of the world the delays to British shipping are much more serious than the delay which occurs in our own ports, but that in no way minimises the necessity for us to improve our own turn-round.
This problem has existed for some time and, when one is discussing such a problem, it is possible to give an exaggerated view of it if examples are picked out in the way my hon. Friend has done. In his remarks I detected that he was aware of the fact that I have no direct executive responsibility in this matter.
§ Mr. Mellish
On the question of exaggeration, I took only one day and I could get thousands of these figures of delays in man-hours. This is not exaggeration. If my right hon. Friend would like a lot more figures, I can give them to him.
§ Mr. Barnes
I recognise that it is a continuing problem, but when one is advancing a case it is usual to pick out the most telling examples. The point I was stressing was that in the case of a port like London the constitution of the Port of London Authority is comprised not only of representatives of Ministers, but of all the interests engaged in the port, including the trade unions.
2766 As my hon. Friend has acknowledged, the main problem is the shortage of lighters and barges in the London Docks. I am informed that whereas the pre-war fleet was, in round figures, 8,000, it is now 7,000. I am also informed that the new craft and the fleet of today is, in its carrying capacity, perhaps equal to, if not greater than, the pre-war fleet. It would not be correct to say that efforts are not being made to bring the fleet up to a stronger and more effective standard. I understand that since the war 895 new barges and 89 tugs and towing launches have been built and that at present the building capacity of the yards which construct this type of craft is fully occupied.
That indicates that everyone responsible for dealing with this problem recognises the difficulty and is seeking to remedy it, although, of course, in view of the general shortage and pressure on all our shipbuilding yards—whether in relation to large or small craft it is not easy to get quick delivery. There is also the possibility that they may be slowed down now in view of the shortage of steel and other commodities.
The Ministry of Transport is the permanent Department in this instance and it falls on us to keep in close contact with all the Departments concerned and with the P.L.A., the shipping lines, the employers and the trade unions. I am not quite clear what point was made about lightermen and staffing. I understand that the unions reject the employers' view that there is an overall shortage of lightermen but, nevertheless, I understand that agreement has been reached between both sides to increase, at least temporarily, the number of unlicensed watermen and that suggests one of the factors in this problem.
§ Mr. Mellish
When I spoke about the register of men I was thinking about the general dock register. As my right hon. Friend probably knows, there has been a re-opening of the register because it was claimed that there was a shortage of men. There is not a shortage of men, but when the time comes that the work is correctly handled, there will be a surplus.
§ Mr. Barnes
I think that, generally, both sides of the industry can deal with a problem of that kind. I was dealing 2767 with the question of shortage of lighter-men. I understand that agreement between both sides is likely to deal with that situation.
In regard to the problem of unloading shiploads of timber, the loading arrangements in West Africa are not altogether what they should be and, as my hon. Friend indicated, we often have a lighter waiting for a particular delivery to a consignee which is at the bottom instead of at the top of the load, which means considerable delay. The work of my Department comes in in so far as we consult and bring together all the parties concerned. We have taken this up with the shipping lines with a view to their using their influence with timber suppliers in West Africa to see if there cannot be a better system of marking and loading this type of cargo.
My hon. Friend emphasised that just at the moment when there is peace in the docks difficulties and delays have arisen in this direction. I have to deal with a long-term problem and in other periods a great deal of dislocation and delay has occurred because of numerous disputes in the docks, with the cause of which my hon. Friend is familiar. Then we get the piling of imports and exports and it takes a very long time before they can be cleared. I recognise that the difficulties we are experiencing on the railways are a contributory factor. My hon. Friend emphasised the difficulty there. It is a fact that the railways are suffering from a shortage of certain key members of their staffs, shunters being one of their gravest labour shortages.
In the first four months of this year we had exceptionally bad weather. There was a widespread epidemic of influenza, men out in the shunters' yards suffered a greater degree of disability than others, so there was this general shortage. That caused a great deal of dislocation and delay on the railways and it has taken 2768 a long time to remedy. I have been in touch with the Port of London Authority about the quays in the Surrey Docks. They informed me that with the exception of two quays the rest are perfectly safe.
The P.L.A. does not determine which cargoes are discharged from a particular quay. That is a matter for the merchant, and to minimize the difficulties it is desirable to get the different bodies together for the purpose of securing the maximum amount of co-operation. In recent months my Department has worked in that direction, and the problem is continually receiving attention. The P.L.A. will shortly be putting proposals before the hardwood importers which they think will represent an improvement.
I can only conclude by saying I fully accept the general statement which my hon. Friend has made. It is essential that all concerned in the Port of London Authority with the handling of goods should work together. Everyone admits that they are working under difficulties, including some which, possibly, they could overcome, and others which are not their direct responsibility. A working party inquired into the slow turn-round of shipping in our London ports and when any section of their report has been referred to the port administration there has been a general desire to improve the problem, because both employers and employees know that in the long run it is in their interests to cooperate for this purpose.
I want to assure my hon. Friend that the specific points he has raised will be looked into, and that if there is anything my Department can do in a direct way to facilitate the purpose which he has in mind he can rest assured that we shall be eager to do it.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Four o'Clock.