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Docks dispute cost Mersey pounds 800,000

The long-running dispute between 329 dismissed dockers and Mersey Docks and Harbour Company cost the group pounds 800,000 last year, it was revealed yesterday.

However, Trevor Furlong, Mersey's chief executive, said discussions were continuing which could lead to a settlement, some 18 months after the industrial action began. The Transport and General Workers Union, which is not officially supporting the dispute, is trying to broker a deal where the dockers would set up a company to supply services to the Port.

Mr Furlong said he was optimistic about talks scheduled for next week. "The germs are there, but we've got to develop it. We still come back to the basic question, which is why the dockers won't hold a secret ballot. We believe a majority would vote to end the action."

In a postal ballot last July the dockers, who were dismissed for refusing to cross a picket line, rejected an offer to reinstate 40 jobs, with pay- offs of pounds 25,000 for the rest. The new offer adds another pounds 3,000 to the settlement.

Jimmy Nolan, chairman of the Merseyside Port Shop Stewards, welcomed Mr Furlong's comments, but said: "We see no logic in having another postal ballot. We wish to be reinstated and we've said that all along. We've had a show of hands on this." But Mr Nolan said the company had to end its relationship with a local employment agency that had recruited replacement staff and must negotiate work exclusively with the dockers' company.

Mersey Docks yesterday announced a 16.5 per cent rise in operating profits for last year to pounds 43.8m. However, headline pre-tax profits fell from pounds 31.7m to pounds 29.7m after the pounds 9m cost of closing the loss-making Eurolink Ferries operation. The group also said it intended to raise investment this year to pounds 48m, after spending pounds 20m in 1996.